Helping Children Cope with Violence
Because we live in a broadcast news society, children you know will be hearing this story over and over and over again for the next few days. How can you help the children in your church cope with violence such as this?
Children need your acceptance of their feelings during this time. Not only are they sad for the people who are affected, they may be worried about personal safety. Let your children know how you feel and how you cope.
Be a Listener
Be a good listener and non-judgmental in your attitudes toward children’s feelings and concerns. Children will have difficulty expressing what is wrong, but you can help them name their feelings and sort out why they feel the way they do.
Children need assurance of safety and security expressed honestly, realistically, and in terms they can understand. They need reassurance that they are not in danger and are cared for by family members or others who love them. The likelihood of a similar event happening in their town is very small. Avoid being overly protective. Talk with your child about concrete things you can do to help make things better for those persons who were involved. You might be surprised at what your child comes up with.
Allow your children to be more “clingy” than usual. They are seeking security in a time of chaos. The idea that the event has happened willl be disconcerting. It disrupts their feelings of security.
Children need opportunities for venting their feelings, acting out the experience, and telling their stories. Encourage them in means of self-expression that are non-destructive to themselves or to others.
Be Loving and Caring
Love, love, and more love. Children need to know that you care. That you are available. That your love is deeper and longer than anything they can imagine.
Children need to know they can trust you—your feelings, what you will do, and what they can expect of the future. Trust is always important to a child, but especially during such times.
Be honest in answering children’s questions. Give simple facts, without too much information, in a loving, caring atmosphere. Children cope best with what they know. Yes, this happened. Yes, it was a bad thing. Yes, many people (including children) were hurt or killed. Yes, it could happen anywhere in the world. Will it happen here? Sometimes all we can say is “I don’t know.” Don’t be afraid to use words such as “death,” or “dying.” Your children understand these words on their own level.
Children need to know that events like this will not happen all the time. If these things do happen, God is still there with them to help them and strengthen them. People all around them are working to keep them safe.
Children may have difficulty distinguishing between fact and fantasy in watching television. Help them know what is real and what is a story. Journalism in today’s world goes for the goriest and grossest stories imaginable just to sell newspapers or attract viewers. Remember, ninety percent of what a child learns comes through the eyes. Avoid watching the news accounts of this tragedy over and over and over again on television. Children might perceive that the event continues to happen.
Put some semblance of stability back into their lives. Keep routines such as bedtime, mealtime, school attendance, and homework, as close to normal as possible. This will help children have a sense of being in control.
Give the children something constructive to do. You may not be in a position to contribute financially, but you can pray for the people hurt, their families, and for the doctors and nurses. Focus on a positive activity. Take their concerns seriously.
Children need the calm presence of and contact with family members or adult care givers who understand their feelings and needs. Your role will be to interpret, clarify, and respond to the children’s questions. Avoid withholding important information. Children can tell when something is not right.
Ways Children Respond
- to the sights of the event as seen through television, newspapers, and magazines
- to the sense of not being “safe” in formerly familiar environments and ‘safe” environments
- by becoming hyperactive, overly busy, active, or restless as they try to make sense of the event
- by becoming egocentric, feeling they are the only ones affected and thinking only of self (Will someone try to hurt me?)
- by being fearful of injury or death to a loved one (such as a sibling or parent in another state or country)
- by reacting negatively when separated from the family, or by being afraid they will be left alone
- by becoming friendly and glad to be alive—by becoming very talkative and wanting to share their experiences with everyone
- by overly responding to their emotions of anger by hitting, kicking, or throwing objects
- by being upset more easily or showing worry unnecessarily
- by needing to tell their own story over and over
- by becoming dependent and fearful
- by feeling guilt and seeking theological explanations (God did not “cause” this to happen.)
- by role reversal or transference (If a family member were killed, they may try to fill the missing person’s role in the family.)
- by having a higher than normal anxiety and stress level
- by being afraid to go to bed at night or to go to sleep for fear of something happening
- by coping through denial that certain feelings are present, or by suppressing that this is actually happening
- by becoming shy and withdrawn from both adults and peers
- by being overly fearful of new situations and new locales
- by clinging to parents for fear that one or both of them will leave (They may refuse to go to school or church, feeling it is unsafe.)
- by becoming upset more easily (shown by crying, fighting, or exhibiting other forms of disruptive behavior)
- by asking questions about God. (Why didn’t God stop this from happening? Why didn’t God protect the people? If these people were doing nothing wrong, why did God allow this terrible thing to happen?)
- by lacking trust in God (Will God take good care of me? If something happens in my city or neighborhood, what will happen to me? Who will care for me?)
by questioning God’s presence with us (If God is here, why do I feel so sad? Why didn’t God keep these things from happening?)
Ways to Help Children Express Their Feelings
Playing in a tub of warm water stimulates inhibited children and soothes angry children. A warm bath may help relieve stress.
Play dough can be worked or reworked to express feelings of anger, frustration, and anxiety.
Painting can help children express moods of joy, sorrow, fear, or anger. Children paint what they feel or what matters in their lives. Finger painting is a good medium for such expression.
Puzzles can be a way for children to create order out of chaos. Children whose lives have become disoriented, confused, or disrupted will often feel better after putting a puzzle together.
Toys can help children relive a bad experience or play out their feelings. Children can often play the role of rescuer, thus living out their feelings of helplessness.
The use of puppets enables children to become talkative and to reenact an unhappy experience. Puppets are good listeners.
Children often lack the vocabulary to express their feelings. A book can help define a child’s understanding of death, and anxiety.
Sitting quietly with a cuddly toy can soothe a frightened or anxious child.
Music allows an emotional release and the free expression of feelings through songs, creative movement, and games.
Active play allows for release of emotional energy in a socially approved way. Quiet games may be comforting to a child who chooses to be alone.
Storytelling, drama, and roleplays are ways to help children tell their stories, to act out feelings, and to resolve conflicts.
What Parents Can Do
• Help your children distinguish between the reality of television coverage of the event and the fantasy of movies, especially for young children. This event happened. It is not a movie. The people won’t get up after the cameras stop rolling and walk away. People were hurt. Some people died.
• Limit the time you permit your children to watch the news. Watch the news with them and encourage them to talk about what you saw. Correct any misunderstandings and answer any questions.
• Keep routines and expectations of behavior as close to normal as possible to give children stability in their daily lives.
• Be honest in answering children’s questions. Keep answers simple, without giving more information than the child needs at the time.
• Be honest with your own feelings. Discuss these with your children or help them know that you have some of the same feelings that they have.
• Assure them of your love. Reassure them that you will keep them safe and will be there to care for them.
• Help children realize that God did not cause this event as a way to punish people.
• Provide comfort in ways that feel reassuring to you and to your children.
• Watch for signs of maladjustment to the event. Spend extra time putting children to bed. Leave the night light on, if needed. Give opportunity for them to ask questions, express concerns, or share their feelings before going to sleep.
• Listen to what the children say, how they say it, and what they play. Is there evidence of fear, anxiety, or insecurity? Talk about and clarify any feelings shown in the conversation or play.
• Have quiet family times together. Spend time sharing concerns, expressing feelings, feeling God’s reassuring presence, and praying to God to express your needs and concerns.
• Pray together as a family. Assure children that God listens to our prayers and answers them. That God continues to love us. That God knows our needs. That God cares how they feel, think, or act. That God can take away their fears and anxiety. That God is always with us and will guide us and strengthen us to meet whatever lies ahead—especially during times of tragedy.
• Plan for the family to attend church and Sunday school regularly to feel the support and strength of this community of believers.
• If a child’s adjustment does not return to normal after a sufficient time, consider talking with someone (minister, school counselor, or professional counselor) who understands children and their needs.
What Churches Can Do
• Pray for those persons who are directly involved in the event. Pray for the families who lost loved ones. Set up a relief fund working through a church agency or community agencies.
• Engage in Bible study and reflection on the worth of each and every person and how all persons are precious to God and loved.
• Offer your facilities for or begin a support group.
• Provide access to your church library for members of the support group.
• Schedule regular prayer vigils for the people who were affected by the tragedy.
• Open your recreational hall or begin new programming for youth and children as a physical outlet for their emotions.
Resources for Children
Check your public library and church library for these books and for reading, thought, and discussion
The 10th Good Thing About Barney, Judith Viorst (Ages 4–8)
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, Leo F. Buscaglia (Ages 4-8)
Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children, Bryan Mellonic and Robert Ingpen (Ages 4-8)
Everett Anderson’s Goodbye, Lucille Clifton. (Ages 5–12)
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst (Ages 4-8)
The Hating Book, Charlotte Zolotow (Ages 4-9)
I Was So Mad, Norma Simon (Ages 4-8)
Sometimes I’m Afraid, the Menniger Clinic (all ages)
A Terrible Thing Happened—A story for children who have witnessed violence or trauma, American Psychological Association
Sad Isn’t Bad: A Good-Grief guidebook for Kids Dealing with Loss, Michaelene Mundy (All Ages)