Cultivating Our Role: A Guide for Navigating Crisis and Conflict with Young Children

November 15th, 2015 | by SRC

The following issue brief is part two of a larger series developed by School Readiness Consulting: A Guide for Navigating Crises and Conflict with Young Children. We will publish new sections periodically to illuminate the challenges faced by young children in stressful situations. The Guide offers practical strategies for adults to help children build an understanding of complex interpersonal relationships and develop coping skills. Upcoming posts will address how to identify signs of stress; how to create safe and caring environments; and how to build resilience in young children. This issue brief  was written by Mimi Howard, with contributions from Je’Kendria Trahan, Rebecca Weiss, and Lindsey Allard Agnamba. To view part one of this series, click here

Through a Child’s Eyes

When a portrait of the impact from the events in NigeriaBaltimoreNepal, and now Charleston, comes to mind, are children there? Whether it’s an unavoidable natural disaster or a violent act of terrorism, children of all ages, backgrounds, and capabilities can experience both internal and external reactions to these significant moments in our lives. Each reader can likely remember a tragic event they’ve endured or learned about during their childhood, and may even be able to attribute to it an element of their personal growth and development.Violence and disasters have always been a very real and prevalent part of life in our world. However, with the massive surge in the use of social media as a means to share current events, explicit information and vivid imagery from these incidents greatly impact our attempts to provide a sense of safety and security to our children . When the hashtags fade out of the spotlight and the brunt of the tragedies ease with time, children are still there, armed with their own unique levels of resilience and competence.

Common Physical Indicators

Whether through secondhand information or direct exposure, children need the help of adults around them to make sense of their experiences and feelings. In fact, support from caring and informed adults is the most important element of helping children deal with the confusion, fear, and anxiety that often comes from exposure to violence or disasters. Because children react to violence and trauma differently than adults, it is not always clear what they are feeling – making it difficult for adults to know how to respond. In addition, the ways children react, what they are able to understand, and how they are able to cope with adversity, will change over time.

Following are common reactions children may display and ways that adults can helpfully and effectively respond:

  • Young children may revert to old behaviors such as thumb sucking or wetting the bed after exposure to trauma.
  • Eating and sleeping habits can change or be inconsistent.
  • Children may experience unexplained aches and pains.
  • Increased levels of fear – of strangers, monsters or darkness often occur, and children want to stay close to trusted adults and places where they feel safe.
  • Children reenact events through play or tell exaggerated stories about what happened.
  • Older children become more withdrawn–spending less time with friends and/or fearing going to school.
  • Doing homework and paying attention often become difficult, and overall school performance may decline.

What Children Need From Us

For the most part, these behaviors subside over time and children bounce back to regular routines and behaviors.  That being said, there are a number of effective ways that adults can help mitigate stress or confusion and support children. Here are some things adults can do:

 1. Create a safe and responsive environment: Be reassuring and create a sense of safety by speaking calmly when interacting with children. Be sure children are getting regular meals and plenty of sleep and exercise. Maintaining normal, regular routines can help children feel more secure, but adults should be prepared to deal with fears, worries, or unusual behaviors as well. Provide close, personal attention and find time for special activities. Finally, don’t forget to play – it relieves stress and anxiety.

2. Listen and watch: Through their actions and words, children let adults know how they are feeling and what they understand. Adults in turn, should let children know that they are completely focused on them, ready and willing to listen, and interested in what they have to say.  Asking open-ended questions is a good way to get children talking while helping them work through concerns or misconceptions. Adults should be willing to accept what they hear children say, and let them know their feelings are okay. Because young children may not have the words they need, use play and other creative activities to encourage expression – both verbal and nonverbal. Finally, reading books can be a powerful tool for opening conversations and helping children identify feelings.

3. Know yourself: Children’s reactions are most often influenced by the adults around them.  Adults should be aware of their own feelings and reactions, and strive to  model strong coping skills. Adults should share their feelings with children as appropriate, and talk to children about what they are doing to deal with their own feelings. Because children will come to the adults they most trust for answers and explanations, adults should gather as many facts as possible when  having a conversation, and be willing to acknowledge that they don’t always have all of the answers.

4. Provide answers and build understanding: Find out first what children know or have heard – their perceptions can be your guide.  Encourage children to ask questions – they will cope better with an event if they understand it.  Do not tell a child he or she is wrong. Remember young children in particular are trying to understand and make meaning based on what they have experienced in the past, and their conclusions may be surprising. Do clear up confusion by answering questions simply, honestly, and in terms they can understand and that link to their personal experience.

5. Be proactive: Many times children feel helpless when they see others in traumatic situations. Adults can help children to channel those feelings into actions that will make them feel more in control and at the same time help others who may need support and assistance. Children of all ages can contribute by making donations, planning drives and collections, or writing letters . Other ways to actively address children’s needs include limiting access to television news right after an event and staying connected to your child’s school.

When adults take time to provide reassurance, answers, and affection, children will feel safe and be able to make sense of their world in a way that builds their confidence, competence, and resiliency. In our next posting, we will examine how teachers can help children deal with concerns and build social capital.

As a preview for Part III of our series, check out this TED Talk about how childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime, from pediatrician, Nadine Harris.

Works Cited/Additional Resources:

National Black Child Development Institute (NBCDI) and The National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). An Activity Book for African American Families: Helping Children Cope with Crisis. 2003/2012.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network and National Center for PTSD. Psychological First Aid Field Operations Guide (2nd. Ed.)

US Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services. Tips for Talking to Children in Trauma: Intervention at home for preschoolers to adolescents.
Save the Children. How to Help Children Cope with Crisis.

National Association of School Psychologists. Talking to Children about Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers.

Deborah Harris (2012) Talking to Children about Crisis.

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