It seems like there is no escaping the grim headlines as they come bounding in, one after the other. Recent events have impacted our nation and the world in ways that would have seemed unimaginable only a few years ago. In fact, studies have shown an increase in suicidal ideation, mental health concerns, and drug use in adults and youth in the past year (Alonzo-Zaldivar, 2022; APA, 2022; MHA, 2022). This alarming realization did not elude the White House, which recently stated that prolonged stressors caused by ongoing crisis events have led Americans to reach a “breaking point” (March 1, 2022). As we try to make sense of these events and move forward with optimism, our youth are attempting to do the same without the experience, regulation, and brain development that comes with adulthood.
It is difficult to determine exactly how to support children in the wake of a traumatic event and while our nation faces prolonged stressors. Caretakers may worry that they are sharing too much, too little, that may be causing more harm than good, or they themselves may still be processing and trying to make sense of what has occurred. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to completely shield our children from the current crisis events and prolonged stressors. They see it in schools and while out in public, they hear it in the news and on social media, and they feel it in everyday interactions. While you may not be able to protect your child from these realities, you can teach them healthy ways to process, cope, and ground themselves with a hopeful frame of mind.
You can start this by tailoring methods for your child to make sense of current events that confuse them, express feelings, and gain a realistic and hopeful perspective. Being mindful of your responses and providing soft guidance as they move through the stages of processing will ensure your child prevails over the worries that have been steadily increasing across the nation.
Be patient, Everyone processes differently. Some children may shut down, some may move in autopilot, some may be slow to process, and some may not want to process. Reactions to crisis events and prolonged stress run along a spectrum. It is important to remember this when supporting your child. Maintain patience, do not force processing or sharing, and move in attunement with your child. Remember to be patient with yourself, too. You also need to process in your own way.
Listen, Allow your child to take the lead sometimes. Ask them what they know about the event, how they feel about it, worries and glimmers of hope that they may have, etc. Again, you do not want to push them, but by allowing them to share, you have a sense of what they know and can meet them where they need to be met in terms of what you share and how you share it. Answer questions in an appropriate manner, calm worries while being realistic, and let it be known that you are present and available for them whenever they need to talk. Listen wholeheartedly, do not just hear.
Validate, Your child will most likely have emotions or worries linked to the event or prolonged stressors. It is important that you let them know that you hear them and that it is OK to have these feelings. In an effort to ease worries, it is easy to disregard or negate them (“Oh, don’t be scared, it’s fine.” “You shouldn’t feel that way.”). Instead, respond with empathy and understanding. Allow your child to sit with these feelings while comforting them at the same time.
Be present, As much as possible, be emotionally present. Demonstrate that you are there for your child in every way. Physical presence is important, but emotional and mental presence is vital.
Consider providing your child…
Multiple modes of expression, A child needs to express themselves and their emotions in a healthy and productive way. They also need to hear others express themselves and at times, need to be a part of the process of shared expression. Provide opportunities for self-expression through both concrete and creative ways, as well as opportunities to observe modeled healthy expression of thoughts and emotions.
Safety to ask questions, Let your child know that they can come to you with questions. When they do ask you questions, respond clearly and confidently in a developmentally appropriate manner. Keep in mind your tone, pace, and nonverbals. If you do not know the answer to a question, let them know that you do not know and reassure them that it is OK to not have all of the answers yet.
Reassurance, Just as it is important to listen and to validate, it is equally important to reassure your child. Let them know that things are hard right now, but that they are safe, that others impacted will find the strength to move forward, and that people are working hard to ensure that a solution is found.
Meaning-making through connection, Provide ample opportunity to connect with trusted friends and loved ones, to share out about the event or stressor, to make meaning of it all through storytelling, and to determine what the next page will look like based on strength of connection.
A sense of control, As much as possible, maintain routines and structure as you normally would. Ensure that basic needs are met. Provide your child with daily self-care and grounding practices, as well as activities that reestablish their control over their own person (offer opportunities to strengthen their sense of self, offer choices, offer opportunities to assist in daily tasks, etc.).
Breaks from excessive worry, Allow time to step away from the worries, to anchor themselves, and to recalibrate. This can be done through socialization, creative outlets, time in nature, sensory activities, gratitude, acts of kindness, positive thinking, mindful meditation, hobbies, humor, leisure, etc.
The right to find acceptance and to move on, Let your child know that, while it is normal to feel worried, sad, scared, angry, etc., it is also normal and OK to accept the situation and to find ways to move forward with hope and optimism. You may want to support this by brainstorming ideas to honor those impacted by the event or stressor (write letters, create art, make cards, attend events that honor, etc.).
Ways to take ownership in how they process and move forward, You can do this by working with your child to set personal goals in terms of overcoming the event or stressor, by focusing on what they have accomplished and how they will continue to work towards overcoming the event or stressor, by helping others, and by focusing on positive thinking.
Our nation is facing a number of crisis events and hardships. While we cannot safeguard our children from learning about these hardships, we can strengthen their grit and resilience against them. In doing so, we can provide them with the capability to overcome anything.