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Helping Infants and Young Children when Violence Occurs

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1. Be there and be calm: Ask children what they know and what they have heard. Listen to the child’s story, follow the child’s lead, and be reassuring about the ways that you will take care of them. Use simple language and correct any misunderstood accounts. Tell a child what they need to know, not all that you know. For example, say something like “Some people did some bad things and other people were hurt. But you are safe here and we will protect you.” Practice these conversations with other adults.

2. Give permission for many different feelings: Infants experience the emotions of sad, mad, glad and worried. As children grow, they experience and express sad, mad, glad, excited, scared and frustrated, and more. Avoid imposing meanings or interpretations on children, but allow them to feel what they feel. Often children will explain their feelings through their body states. Consider asking “where” do they feel as well as “how” do they feel.

3. Share your feelings: It is okay and important for children to know that the adults in their lives have the same feelings when bad things happen. Let children know you feel these feelings and that you are there for them. It is important, however, that you remain in control. Monitor your own emotion and tone of voice. Pay attention to your gestures, affect, and voice because children pay special attention to these ways of communicating. You can help children feel safer and calmer when your behaviors convey these feelings. If your own reaction is difficult to manage, enlist another adult to help you.

4. Limit repeat exposure to images and reports of the events: When children do see images or reports of tragedies, Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood suggests that we help them “look for all the people who are helping”. Couple the sad tragedy with the comforting presence of others who are helping and taking care of others.

5. Remember the 3R’s of security: Relationships, Routines and Restoration: Both children and adults need the basic “R’s” of safety for comfort and reassurance at times of uncertainty. Highlight relationships with familiar and consistent caregivers, family and friends. Protect and increase routines that are familiar and normalizing such as play time, going to school, reading books, and other patterned activities. Remember the body and the importance of restoration, including appropriate sleeping and eating patterns, and time-limited regression to previously used ways of feeling better, i.e. hugs and physical touch, sensory-based ‘soothies’ like a blanket, stuffed animal or pacifier, and expression of emotion like crying, clinging, whining or wailing.

6. Intervene with the developmental age and stage of the child in mind: Infants require comfort, familiar attachment figures, holding, protection and restoration of order. As language and imagination grow, toddlers and very young children need simple words, repeated reassurances, acceptance of time-limited regression, constant monitoring and love. At each developmental period, the availability and empathic response of a caring, familiar adult begins the process of remediation.

7. Intervene with the particular learning style and temperament of the child in mind: Children with autism and other special needs may process information – gestures, pictures and language – in different ways. Often a “4L’s” strategy may help: Less Language and Longer Latency. This means that you can use fewer words and wait longer for a reply. Ask the child what they were thinking and feeling and even draw pictures or tell stories. Use your own facial expressions, voice and words to reflect and “tune in” to their emotions. If helpful, use pictures or drawings to identify and label different feelings. Be prepared for misunderstandings and misinterpretations, and keep clarifying and reassuring the child that you will be sure they are safe.

8. Provide structure and communicate safety: Uncertainty is the province of adulthood. While we as adults may feel unsure of the possibility of future tragedies, we must always let children know that we will take care of them and protect them. Children thrive when provided structure and safety.

9. Recognize that there are some feelings that we can only share and cannot fix: Children need us to be there with and for them at such times. It’s appropriate to both not have an answer and be with the children in their sadness and confusion.

10. Remember to take care of yourself: If the adults in a child’s life are overwhelmed, overstressed and overtired, it will be more difficult to be safe, secure and stable for the child. Pay attention to the “ABC’s” of self-care: awareness, balance and connection, in your own life. Enlist other adults to help you process what has happened and support you in your support of the child.

G. Costa, Ph.D. 2002/2012; K. Mulcahy, LPC 2012
Montclair State University, Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health
Voice: 973-655-6685  |  Fax: 973-655-5376  |  Website

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Helping Children Cope with Tragedy Related Anxiety

Children sense the anxiety and tension in adults around them. And, like adults, children experience the same feelings of helplessness and lack of control that tragedy-related stress can bring about. Unlike adults, however, children have little experience to help them place their current situation into perspective.

Each child responds differently to tragedy, depending on his or her understanding and maturity, but it’s easy to see how an event like this can create a great deal of anxiety in children of all ages because they will interpret the tragedy as a personal danger to themselves and those they care about.

Whatever the child’s age or relationship to the damage caused by tragedy, it’s important that you be open about the consequences for your family, and that you encourage him or her to talk about it.

Quick Tips for Parents

  • Children need comforting and frequent reassurance that they’re safe make sure they get it.
  • Be honest and open about the tragedy or disaster.
  • Encourage children to express their feelings through talking, drawing or playing.
  • Try to maintain your daily routines as much as possible.

Pre-school Age Children

Behavior such as bed-wetting, thumb sucking, baby talk, or a fear of sleeping alone may intensify in some younger children, or reappear in children who had previously outgrown them. They may complain of very real stomach cramps or headaches, and be reluctant to go to school. It’s important to remember that these children are not “being bad” –they’re afraid. Here are some suggestions to help them cope with their fears:

  • Reassure young children that they’re safe. Provide extra comfort and contact by discussing the child’s fears at night, by telephoning during the day and with extra physical comforting.
  • Get a better understanding of a child’s feelings about the tragedy. Discuss the tragedy with them and find out each child’s particular fears and concerns. Answer all questions they may ask and provide them loving comfort and care. You can work to structure children’s play so that it remains constructive, serving as an outlet for them to express fear or anger.

Grade-school Age Children

Children this age may ask many questions about the tragedy, and it’s important that you try to answer them in clear and simple language. If a child is concerned about a parent who is distressed, don’t tell a child not to worry–doing so will just make him or her worry more.

Here are several important things to remember with school-age children:

  • False reassurance does not help this age group. Don’t say tragedies will never affect your family again; children will know this isn’t true. Instead, say “You’re safe now and I’ll always try to protect you,– or–Adults are working very hard to make things safe.” Remind children that tragedies are very rare. Children’s fears often get worse around bedtime, so you might want to stick around until the child falls asleep in order to make him or her feel protected.
  • Monitor children’s media viewing. Images of the tragedy and the damage are extremely frightening to children, so consider limiting the amount of media coverage they see. A good way to do this without calling attention to your own concern is to regularly schedule an activity–story reading, drawing, movies, or letter writing, for example–during news shows.
  • Allow them to express themselves through play or drawing. As with younger children, school-age children sometimes find comfort in expressing themselves through playing games or drawing scenes of the tragedy. Allowing them to do so, and then talking about it, gives you the chance to “re-tell” the ending of the game or the story they have expressed in pictures with an emphasis on personal safety.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” Part of keeping discussion of the tragedy open and honest is not being afraid to say you don’t know how to answer a child’s question. When such an occasion arises, explain to your child that tragedies are extremely rare, and they cause feelings that even adults have trouble dealing with. Temper this by explaining that, even so, adults will always work very hard to keep children safe and secure.

Information downloaded from  © copyright Mental Health America December 17, 2012

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