When a community is in crisis or feeling traumatized, it impacts children in a variety of ways. Traumatic events are especially difficult for parents who feel a tremendous responsibility in trying to make their children feel safe when they don’t themselves. Whether you live in the traumatized community or on the periphery, we need to be mindful that our community may interpret events in very different and personal ways.
We hope for healing, while remaining sensitive to the needs of young children and how they may be processing the conversations and scenes that play out again and again in the media. Even though they may not understand the meaning of what they see or hear, children are absorbing the images that surround them and are deeply impacted by the emotions of parents, providers, and other family members. We can help by modeling healthy emotions and instilling values like compassion and empathy to help young children navigate trauma.
First, parents need to understand that community trauma may create the following symptoms:
- sleep difficulties like night terrors
- changes in eating habits like loss of appetite or overeating
- general irritability like outbursts or crying
- a sense of fear, anxiety and hopelessness
What can parents the community do to counteract these symptoms? Children need to feel physically safe, emotionally safe, and socially safe in order to build resiliency. The central question on the minds of young children is “Am I safe?” Assure children that they are safe.
“You are safe. Something happened. Lots of people are working to make things OK. You are safe.”
From a developmental perspective, what young children see on TV is what they think it is. If they see the situation five times, they think it is happening five times even if it is the same image or scenario repeated. Limit the amount of screen time and media exposure for children.
What can you do? Hear what children are saying or not saying:
- Stay connected to children and listen for concerns, observe art work, and hear their stories. Turn off the TV and radio.
- Be sensitive about the adult conversations regarding the situation.
- Help children identify their feelings.
- Provide children with a model for communication.
- Open up and share “I feel …”
- Say “I am upset, I am sad, I am mad…”
- Be intentional about time together; play board games, draw, and build.
- Encourage families to do things together that feel good as a family.
How do we make our babies feel safe even when we do not? When a parent is anxious, your child often senses it. Children need to know when bad things are happening, we are keeping them safe. Yes, our world is changing; childhood is changing but child development is not! Children need us to provide an oasis of safety even in times of community turmoil. Because we know that what happens early in life lasts a lifetime.
By Stephen P. Zwolak
CEO of LUME Institute
A list of books from the Free Library of Philadelphia:
Dealing With Violence, Trauma and Stress: Books for Children
An article from the National Institute of Mental Health:
Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters: What Parents Can Do