Tips for Parents and Teachers: Talking to Children in Times of Crisis

Whenever a tragedy occurs, children, like many people, may be confused or frightened. Most
likely they will look to adults for information and guidance on how to react. Parents and
school personnel can help children cope first and foremost by establishing a sense of safety and
security. As more information becomes available, adults can continue to help children work
through their emotions and perhaps even use the process as a learning experience.

All Adults Should:
1. Model calm and control. Children take their emotional cues from the significant adults in
their lives. Avoid appearing anxious or frightened.
2. Reassure children that they are safe and (if true) so are the other important adults in their
lives. Depending on the situation, point out factors that help insure their immediate safety and
that of their community.
3. Let children know that it is okay to feel upset. Explain that all feelings are okay when a
tragedy like this occurs. Let children talk about their feelings and help put them into
perspective. Even anger is okay, but children may need help and patience from adults to assist
them in expressing these feelings appropriately.
4. Observe children’s emotional state. Depending on their age, children may not express
their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns can also indicate a
child’s level of grief, anxiety or discomfort. Children will express their emotions differently.
There is no right or wrong way to feel or express grief.
5. Look for children at greater risk. Children who have had a past traumatic experience or
personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or with special needs may be at
greater risk for severe reactions than others. Be particularly observant for those who may be
at risk of suicide. Seek the help of mental health professional if you are at all concerned.
6. Tell children the truth. Don’t try to pretend the event has not occurred or that it is not
serious. Children are smart. They will be more worried if they think you are too afraid to tell
them what is happening.
7. Stick to the facts. Don’t embellish or speculate about what has happened and what might
happen. Don’t dwell on the scale or scope of the tragedy, particularly with young children.
8. Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate. Early elementary schoolchildren
need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that the daily
structures of their lives will not change. Upper elementary and early middle schoolchildren
will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done
at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Upper middle
school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of
violence and threats to safety in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions
about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. They will be more
committed to doing something to help the victims and affected community. For all children,
encourage them to verbalize their thoughts and feelings. Be a good listener!
9. Monitor your own stress level. Don’t ignore your own feelings of anxiety, grief, and anger.
Talking to friends, family members, religious leaders, and mental health counselors can help. It
is okay to let your children know that you are sad, but that you believe things will get better.
You will be better able to support your children if you can express your own emotions in a
productive manner. Get appropriate sleep, nutrition, and exercise.

What Parents Can Do
1. Focus on your children over the week following the tragedy. Tell them you love them and
everything will be okay. Try to help them understand what has happened, keeping in mind
their developmental level.
2. Make time to talk with your children. Remember if you do not talk to your children about
this incident someone else will. Take some time and determine what you wish to say.
3. Stay close to your children. Your physical presence will reassure them and give you the
opportunity to monitor their reaction. Many children will want actual physical contact. Give
plenty of hugs. Let them sit close to you, and make sure to take extra time at bedtime to
cuddle and to reassure them that they are loved and safe.
4. Maintain a “normal” routine. To the extent possible stick to your family’s normal routine
for dinner, homework, chores, bedtime, etc., but don’t be inflexible. Children may have a
hard time concentrating on schoolwork or falling asleep at night.
5. Spend extra time reading or playing quiet games with your children before bed. These
activities are calming, foster a sense of closeness and security, and reinforce a sense of
normalcy. Spend more time tucking them in. Let them sleep with a light on if they ask for it.
6. Safeguard your children’s physical health. Stress can take a physical toll on children as
well as adults. Make sure your children get appropriate sleep, exercise, and nutrition.
7. Consider praying or thinking hopeful thoughts for the victims and their families. It may
be a good time to take your children to your place of worship, write a poem, or draw a picture
to help your child express their feelings and feel that they are somehow supporting the victims
and their families.
8. Find out what resources your school has in place to help children cope. Most schools are
likely to be open and often are a good place for children to regain a sense of normalcy. Being
with their friends and teachers can help. Schools should also have a plan for making counseling
available to children and adults who need it.

Excerpts from: A National Tragedy: Helping Children Cope, National
Association of School Psychologists, 2002
Full document available at: www.nasponline.org
Last modified: Thursday, 15 December 2011, 11:22 AM