When there is a tragedy, those of us who have or work with young children have two simultaneous responses. We are personally reacting and grieving and we are also trying to plan for how to help the little people in our care.
Some tragedies we can shield children from, and depending on their age we should. However, sometimes that isn’t an option because it is too personal, too close or they see it from another source. When that happens, it is up to us to give them the context for what they are seeing and, most importantly, help them to feel safe and secure.
Young children are self-centered. It isn’t a put-down it is just true. Their world view revolves around themselves and their loved ones. What they need is to know that they are safe and that someone will be there to take care of them. If they are worried about you dying or “going away” you can reassure them that you are planning to be around for a long time but that there will ALWAYS be someone to take care of them.
It is important to let them have their feelings. Some may come to you with big emotions, some may seem like they don’t have any reaction or that they are pretending it isn’t happening. Make it ok for them to feel however they are feeling and know that they can come to you to talk about it. It is also ok for YOU to have your own feelings. You can tell them that you are feeling sad, or angry or scared and show them how you are dealing with it. This reminds them it is ok to feel and that there are ways to handle those feelings.
If they ask you questions, answer JUST the question they are asking. It is easy for us to mentally OVER prepare for a child’s question. When we do that we may give them more information then they were really looking for. Give them a specific but limited answer and wait for the next question. That way you are following their lead and keeping to what they are able to understand.
When tragedies happen, the quote from Mr. Rogers about looking for the “helpers” often floats around. It can really help children to have a concrete something that they can do or look for. Show them the people who are helping and taking care of each other and also see if they have any ideas for what they can do to help. Becoming a helper may make them feel more in control again.
Also, remember the old saying “little pitchers have big ears.” Be careful of the media that you have on (radio, TV, images) because they will see things and come to their own conclusions. Even if you think they aren’t listening, they probably are.
National Association for the Education of Young Children: Coping with Violence Resources
Levar Burton talks about helping children after tragedies (originally filmed after the 2013 Oklahoma tornado disaster)
Dr. Rene Hackney: Great resource on parenting. She has done many workshops on stress and anxiety in kids. She is quoted in the following article
Teaching Tolerance: Racism and Police Violence
Blog post I wrote for American History on dealing with tough topics in museums