Explaining the Unexplainable: How to Talk to Children about Crisis

Explaining the Unexplainable: How to Talk to Children about Crisis

Helping children grieve - Corrie Sirota

 In the light of the current situation in the Middle East, I feel compelled to offer guidance to parents, caregivers & educators in processing such tragic events with their children: 

We live in an era of the 24/7 news feed, the immediate and direct reporting of catastrophic images from the epicentre of crisis, where it can be hard to distinguish what’s real and what’s fake news. 24-hour news centres such as CNN and social media forums such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (to name just a few) result in a world of immediate access and live footage of world events. What is billed as real time reporting is often a continuous loop of imagery from the latest world crisis and an over analysis of speculation and conjecture. For some, this continuous stream of information is perceived as positive. The individual can feel comforted by the constant updating of information. For others, and particularly for children who are developmentally unable to comprehend and integrate the graphic information and imagery to which they are being exposed, this can be a very unsettling experience; suddenly, their whole world seems to be filled with disturbing imagery. 

So what can you do? 

The following list of practical suggestions, that when implemented with your own personal values and belief system, can serve to teach practical coping mechanisms to children during a crisis situation: 

1) Actions speak louder than words: As parents, caregivers, or educators it is essential that you remember that children model themselves after your behaviour. You are the role models by which they will learn how to behave and react. Therefore, keep your reactions in check. This includes limiting the amount of television you watch; if you are glued to the TV, this will be the norm for your children. Try to limit TV watching if you wish to limit your children’s exposure. Children do not inherently understand that it is the same images of buildings being bombed, rockets flying and destroying buildings or people being paraded in the streets; if they are going to watch, be sure you are watching with them and explain what they are seeing. 

2) Talk with them, not at them. You need to listen to what your kids are saying. Begin by asking the child questions about what they know of the situation. You will get a sense of what they fear and what they need. This will also give you an opportunity to respond to their concerns rather than what you think they need to hear. Most kids will reveal their own beliefs and fears through this simple exercise. 

3) Your turn to talk: Once you listen to their thoughts, feelings and description of the information be mindful of the language you use – keep in mind, younger children are very literal – therefore blanket statements such as “People died because of their religious affiliation” can be scary if they themselves identify similarly. Children need context, which means it’s important to read up on the history of the conflict in order to help explain the circumstances in a more comprehensive manner. Get behind the words you hear, as more often than not, the underlying concern is for their personal safety, therefore, they need reassurance that they are safe, including all the measures that have been put in place in their community to ensure this and that will continue to be safe. Lastly, remember it’s also OK not to have all the answers, and you can also wonder with them. 

4) Who are you talking to? Keep in mind your child’s temperament. Most parents and caregivers are the experts on their children, it is imperative that you respect who they are and what developmental level they are currently at before you approach them with information. That is to say – the preschooler needs simple, honest information with little specific detail of the actual event. Older elementary will want more information and details – they may ask more questions and require reassurance that they are safe and what is being done to keep them safe. Finally older children will have very strong opinions of what they heard, saw, believe – this becomes a unique opportunity to begin to discuss proactive ways that children can help others in a crisis situation. 

5) Same old, same old: Maintaining regular routines as much as possible is more important than ever when crisis occurs. Everyone needs stability; it contributes to a feeling of normalcy and security. That being said, watch for significant changes in behaviour – excessive crying, sleep disturbances, acting out, fear of separation for example. Essentially what you are looking for is the frequency, intensity and duration of any behaviour, as this will provide you with an indication of the need to seek additional support for your child (consult with your family doctor or a mental health professional in your area.) 

6) Keep moving forward: While we cannot change what is happening, we can help our children take a proactive role in their processing and moving forward from a crisis situation. This means identifying ways to get involved the community, volunteer work, and/or fundraising initiatives, all of which can serve to help children begin to take back control of their lives. 

Bad things happen, we cannot inoculate our children against the realities of the world. We can however, do our best to educate, sensitize and empathize with our children so that when crisis does happen they can cope with it in the most effective way possible. 

Written by: 

Corrie Sirota MSW, PSW 

Clinical Director, Myra’s Kids Foundation