Being a caregiver of a young child is never easy. When you add political unrest, terrorism, pandemics, crimes, wars, and other traumatic events it can feel almost impossible to feel like you know what you're doing. I am not here to tell you that I have the answers on how to make it feel easy because I don’t and it won’t. I am here, however, to take a sliver of the burden off of your shoulders to make it feel a tiny bit more manageable and to add a few tidbits to your toolbox. My goal with this post is to share my insight as a former children’s and family therapist working with children who were victims of trauma that may be helpful to anyone who may have young children in their lives. You may notice that I use the word “caregiver” rather than “parent”- this is intentional as many people other than parents have meaningful relationships with children and this information is for all of them too.
First and foremost I think the most important thing to recognize is that it’s OK for you to have your own reactions to traumatic events. It’s OK for you to not have the answers and to say “I don’t know that answer right now”. Children value transparency and honesty just as much as adults do and it can be incredibly disconcerting for them to be able to perceive stress or anxiety but to get a different message verbally. So if you are feeling sad, angry, hurt, fearful, etc it is OK for children to know that. Children learn better by watching than by being told how to handle things so in reality hearing you say “I’m really sad that XYZ is happening” and then seeing what you do to regulate and feel safe and secure is actually a very good thing provided those coping skills are healthy. So take this time to take care of yourself- be the caregiver YOU need too. If you need help managing your own mental health please use one or many of the following resources to help you regulate so you are able to be the caregiver children around you need.
Try to Maintain a Sense of Rhythm and Predictability.
While it is expected that during times of crisis, traumatic events or disasters that our home lives change, children benefit from having predictability in their lives. It helps children feel secure to know what's coming around the corner to the best of their ability. One of the main philosophies that I like for this is the Waldorf approach to creating a family rhythm (a good resource for this here ). To sum it up for you in simplistic terms that can be applied to any household - Waldorf or not - find ways to create anchors in your day/week. A phrase I use for myself is “when we ___, then we ___”. For example “when we wake up, then we go outside for a short period of play before breakfast”, “when it’s Tuesday, we have dinner with grandma and grandpa”, etc. Doing your best to keep this type of rhythm during times of stress will give children a sense of safety and normalcy in what might otherwise feel pretty chaotic. It should feel less like a restraining schedule and more like a safe harbor.
Keep Answers to Questions Honest but Age Appropriate
In most cases, I would say it’s unnecessary to bring up traumatic events in the news that do not directly affect the children in your care, especially when those children are prone to anxiety and fearfulness. You can work with very young kids on learning and building skills related to current events without giving frightening and confusing information. Here is an example given by Save The Children in regards to racism and social justice. You can provide resources that are age appropriate such as picture books geared toward the subjects in current events if you want to provide more information, just be sure to screen them beforehand. McCoy Kids has a wonderful selection of books on topics from refugees to racism and beyond.
If children will potentially see things on the news, hear about it at school, or hear adults talking about current events they should be given space to ask questions. As I mentioned before, children can pick up on the disparities between the emotions around them and incomplete or dishonest answers. If people are crying, kids are talking about it in school, or things are on fire on the news on the TV but the adults in the child's life say “everythings fine, nothings going on” they are going to be confused. Keep answers factual but limited to what is age appropriate and anchored at the end with a message of security if possible. As an example, if a young child asked about the current invasion of Ukraine by Putin you could say something like “There is a leader in a country who has made the choice to try to take over another country called Ukraine. His actions are hurting a lot of people and doing a lot of damage. A lot of the leaders and people of the world are standing up to him right now and doing what they can to protect people. It has been amazing to see how strong people can be”. Most kids are satisfied with short and simple answers like that but if not, allow space for more questions. If the child is older and regulates their emotions fairly well you could also add some action steps “We are so fortunate to be safe. I was thinking we could do something to help, like raise money to donate, what do you think?” Make a game plan to talk with whoever is in the “village” helping support the child you care for so that everyone is on the same page.
Limit Exposure to News, Social Media Content
This one probably doesn't need too much of an explanation. Children absorb everything. They may not be actively watching or listening but they still take in whatever media is around them so be mindful of what is on TV or on your phone. This is a helpful tip for self-care for adults during times of crisis as well.
Pay Attention to Play
An interesting aspect of children’s therapy that a lot of people may not know is that many, if not most, of the sessions are spent doing art or observing play. Children don’t have the same language capacity of adults and cannot always verbalize how they feel. They can’t put words to the big concepts and thoughts they have. One thing they can do is play. A 3 year old may not be able to tell you “I’m scared” but perhaps you’ve noticed that all of their dollhouse dolls keep hiding. A 5 year old may not be able to verbalize that they are anxious but they may start drawing things that they didn’t before. Perhaps the way they play with friends or toys is getting a little more aggressive than it had been. Play is a window into the thoughts of children and these examples are cues that the child may have some unmet needs in terms of feeling safe and secure. On the flip side of the same coin, play can be a wonderful tool for helping kids work through these big feelings. Get down on the floor and help the hiding dolls what they need in order to come out, ask open ended questions about the art, play games that role model loving behavior. Preschool and kindergarten age children benefit a lot from sensory and small world play. Make time for play and do your best to make time to be present for some of it.
Focus on Resilience Building
The best way we can help children, and even adults, through traumatic events is to develop resilience skills. These are the skills we lean on when times get tough and what helps us get through it. When I did therapy, my second session with kids usually centered on creating a “coping skills tool box” with them. We found a box and put the things they found helpful and comforting inside of it. Since kids this young are such concrete thinkers, it helps a lot to have a visual, tangible reminder of the things they can do. Some examples of what we’ve put inside them: yoga cards, tools for breathing deeply like balloons or bubbles, a favorite stuffed animal, a gift from a loved one, something soft to touch, something they love the smell of, crayons and paper, a couple figurines, some playdough or putty, a bottle of water to drink, a music box or cd, phone numbers of relatives or friends. It doesn’t have to be expensive or fancy. Use what you have and try to think of what already works and solidify it. Take moments throughout your day to role model healthy coping on a daily basis- exaggerate it a little so it has a little “pay attention to me” flair to it. Drop something and feel frustrated? “Ugh, that is so upsetting. I’m gonna take a couple breaths before I clean it up to calm down”. It may seem small and silly but learning these skills for seemingly unimportant problems helps them apply it down the road when they are facing bigger struggles. Generation Mindful has some wonderful free articles and tips for this as well as courses and kits available. Sparkle Stories is also offering a free collection of audio stories for kids that help with relaxation and resilience building.
Give Everyone Some Grace
It is normal and expected that in stressful times that people will lose their cool and kids will tantrum and act up. It’s ok. Apologize when you need to and try not to beat yourself up about it. No one expects caregivers to be perfect. No one expects children to behave perfectly all the time. (well…some people do but that’s their problem, not yours). Validate your own feelings and the feelings of the children in your lives. These feelings are real, valid, and ok. They will also pass.
It’s OK to Need Help
If you feel like you are in over your head, it is OK to ask for help. There are so many professionals at the ready to be able to help tackle whatever concerns you may have for the children in your life. SAMHSA’s national helpline can help get you connected to resources. It is available 24/7 in English and Spanish.
Caysie Price, MA is a former children’s and family therapist who provided services to children who were under state care in both California and Arizona. She completed her training at California State University and Alliant International University. She is no longer licensed or providing therapy as she is now homeschooling her child. The above article is not to be construed as therapy.