Helping Children Through Crisis and Trauma 7 Keys to Resilience

  • Jennifer Cisney Ellers, M.A.One of the most common questions during the crisis response trainings I teach is how to tell children about traumatic events.  Parents, grandparents, teachers and anyone who has a child in their life has probably struggled with how and what to tell that child when something tragic happens.  Whether it is explaining the latest act of violence in the news or having to inform a child about the death of a loved one, family member or friend, these conversations can be complex and challenging with even wonderful parents struggling for words. I want to offer a few general guidelines in this article that may help anyone faced with delivering news of death or trauma to children.   

    Trusted adults - It is critical that any crisis intervention and the delivery of difficult news be done by adults who are trusted by the child.  Crisis intervention specialists may work with parents,  relatives and teachers to coach them, but a stranger should never be the one to give death notifications or discuss traumatic news with a child.

    Don't lie  - It is certainly important to consider the age of the child and how much information to give them about a death and traumatic event, particularly when the circumstances are complex and difficult even for adults to understand.  But avoid the temptation to tell the child an untruth about the situation.  One of the most common situations where adults are challenged to tell the truth is in the case of a suicide.  Well-meaning adults will often tell children that a family member or loved one who committed suicide had a heart attack or died in a car accident.  They are fearful to try to explain why someone would take their own life.  This is understandable, since the subject of suicide is often bewildering to adults and it is even more so with children.  However, the truth always comes out and it is better coming from a trusted adult than through a friend or the internet or a television news broadcast.  
    This is also true of violent circumstances.  Since adults are concerned that telling too much of the truth to children about a school shooting or the murder or the abduction of another child will create fear in them, it is still better to give them truthful, but age appropriate, information up front with the caveat that you will explain more as they grow older.  And besides, in our modern society with nearly instantaneous access to information, it is virtually impossible to keep that information from children anyway, especially the older children.  

    Give information that is age appropriate - How do you know what information is age appropriate?  First, you will often have a gut instinct about what to share with a child based on age.  Second, there are some wonderful books and resources that go beyond what I can offer in this article that give developmental stages and what information is reasonable at each stage.  But if you are helping children through a very personal crisis or trauma, one in which they experienced trauma themselves or if a parent or sibling was killed, then I recommend seeking assistance from a qualified Christian counselor who can walk you through the conversation and help provide ongoing support for both children and their primary adult caregivers.   

    Keep the door open for questions -  Adults are often surprised that children may have limited emotional responses to difficult information.  They may ask very few questions or ask questions that may seem strange.  Don't worry.  Children, especially young children, may have limited capacity to understand and might not have the ability to process the information right away.  It is critical that you give them permission to ask questions or talk with you about the situation at any time in the future.  Also, assure them there are no wrong or stupid questions and that you will never get angry at them for asking questions or for expressing their feelings about the death or crisis.  

    Tell them it is not their fault - It is critical to tell children, no matter how obvious it may seem, that what happened was not their fault.  Children see the world from a very ego-centric perspective.  They can imagine that their behavior or something they said triggered the crisis event.  One small boy believed for years that his father committed suicide because of the bad grades of his report card.   

    Children will be thinking of how the situation will impact them - Know that the foremost question in the minds of most children following a crisis event is "how will this impact me?".  Whether it is the injury or death of a parent, a classmate or teacher or a natural disaster, children will wonder how their lives will be impacted.  It is important to address this as soon as possible.  Reassure children they will be safe and that you are there for them.  Again, it is important not to lie.  If a parent is sick or injured, a child will often ask if they are going to die.  Unless you are certain, don't assure the child that the parent will not die.  As tempting as it may be to want to soothe a child's fear, it will create an even more painful situation if you promise their parent will not die and they do.  

    Spend time with them in play and recreation  - Most counselors who work with children use play therapy.  This is a form of therapy where a therapist uses play or recreational activities to help understand what is going on inside a child's mind.  Children, especially those under the age of 12, may not have the emotional or verbal skills for traditional cognitive behavioral therapies.  They cannot tell you how they feel about a situation or discuss their hurts and fears.  However, they are often able to reveal those feelings and fears through play, drawing or games.  Parents and other caring adults can also find spending time with children in play can be incredibly helpful in helping them through crisis and loss.  

    The most critical factor in building resilience in children and helping them weather traumatic situations is to have safe and loving adults who are consistently there for them and available physically, emotionally and spiritually.  It is incredible what children can endure.  And most children even thrive after a crisis if they have consistent and stable loving adults who are available to them and who show them how much they care.  

    Jennifer Cisney Ellers, M.A. is the Director of AACC's Grief, Crisis and Disaster Division.  She is a professional counselor, life coach, crisis response trainer, author and speaker.  She does training, counseling and coaching in the field of grief, crisis and trauma through the Institute for Compassionate Care.  She is an approved instructor for the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, teaching several CISM courses.   She is the co-author of “The First 48 Hours: Spiritual Caregivers as First Responders” with her husband, Dr. Kevin Ellers.