Tips to Help Children Feel Safe
By Roni Cohen Leiderman, Ph.D., Associate Dean
Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies
Nova Southeastern University
When children are exposed to frightful events, it can be extremely upsetting and may shake their sense of security. Parents have the responsibility not only to protect their children from harm but also to assuage the anxiety and fear that children may experience. There is a fine balance between giving children necessary information to keep them safe in a world that can be dangerous while giving them a sense of security. Parents also need to process their own reactions to frightening events and be sensitive to how they model coping strategies for their children.
Children all react somewhat differently to events, yet there are common responses that adults can look for and ways that all parents can support their families. When hearing of a frightening situation, children may express worries and may have nightmares. They may ask a lot of questions, looking for reassurance, or conversely, may not be open to talking about the incident. They may appear more clingy, needy and fearful. At the extreme, some children may show eating or sleeping disturbances, dramatic differences in their play, or atypical aggression. There are some universal strategies that can support your child during various life stresses and tragic events.
1. Give your Children a Sense of Security.
Children need to feel safe. They need to be told that you are there to protect them. They thrive on consistency and do well with predictable routines. When appropriate, include your child in decision-making regarding her day so that she feels a sense of control. Give your child simple, age appropriate strategies that will help to keep them safe. And remember that she will need continued support and reassurance.
2. Listen to Your Children and Read their Cues. Young children may or may not have the words to express their feelings. Pay attention to what they are saying or how they are acting. Let them know that you understand their fears and reflect how you think they are feeling. "I know this seems scary to you, Jon", lets your child know that their feelings are valid. Don't minimize their fears yet let them know that they are safe and protected.
3. Avoid Continued Media Exposure.
Children have a difficult time hearing information on the television, Internet or radio that is geared towards adults. Respect your child's need to be protected from the gory details of traumatic events. When very young children are exposed over and over to the same event on the media, it is as if it is reoccurring each time. If your child is watching TV, make sure that you are sitting with him, talking about what he is viewing and monitoring what he sees.
4. Encourage your Child to Express their Feelings.
Children learn through play. Through pretend play, books, music and art, they are able to express their feelings, work out their issues, and learn
5. Model Coping and Communication.
You are your child's first and most important teacher. Talk with your children about ways that you cope with stressful events and model strategies and healthy and honest communication. Be aware that your children are observing your reactions and are listening to your conversations with other adults.
6. Be Patient
Note that children have different timetables. Some children may respond quickly and openly. Other children may not immediately appear to have any issues regarding the situation but may, even weeks or months later, begin to process their fears and anxieties. Be patient, understanding and accept your child's feelings while helping them develop their own coping strategies.
7. Seek Professional Help When Needed
If your child is having a difficult time dealing with a stressful event, speak with your child's teacher, a school counselor or a therapist. Acknowledge that you, too, may need to speak with someone who can offer resources and information to assist you in supporting your child and in developing your own coping strategies.
Remember that your child is looking to you for comfort and security. Paying attention to their feelings, maintaining open and honest communication, and offering age appropriate safety information will help children be safe, cope and learn important life lessons.
Nova Southeastern University has counseling services available to assist children and families. For more information, call the Brief Therapy Institute at 954-262-3030 or visit the website: www.nova.edu/shss .