Unfortunately,  we’ve seen a rise in acts of terrorism over the past several years. Schools across the country now have lock down drills in addition to regularly scheduled fire drills so that students and school personnel should be prepared in case of emergency. According to cbsnews.com, the number of mass shootings, where four are more people were shot, ” so far in 2019 has outpaced the number of days this year, according to a gun violence research group. This puts 2019 on pace to be the first year since 2016 with an average of more than one mass shooting a day. As of Aug. 5, which was the 217th day of the year, there have been 255 mass shootings in the U.S., according to data from the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive (GVA), which tracks every mass shooting in the country.”

These statistics are both alarming and nerve wracking to all of us, to say the least. Children, by nature,  are the most vulnerable physically, emotionally and mentally.  I’ll reassure you by sharing this before I cover how you can help children deal with disaster.  When asked for years to follow, what a child in my care remembered about the events on the day of a national disaster, his response was “green apples.”  So, how do we help our children cope with tragedy?

On a beautiful early September morning, soon after arriving at my third-floor office of a large school, I opened my office windows to let crisp breeze circulate and the sun shine in the otherwise stale room.  It was the beginning of the school year and I had my crew of endeared students, whose morning routine included visiting my office before trekking off to class.  And, like clockwork, they trickled in one-by-one to quickly exchange morning greetings and show off their new school clothes.

By 8:30 am, I began to set into my own morning routine of checking emails and prepping my daily to-do list.  Shortly thereafter, I caught myself gazing out into the distance while gathering my thoughts.  From the corner of my right eye, I noticed that the clear blue sky was turning ember and what look like thick clouds started to dominate the distant view. Shortly thereafter, around 9:00 am, I saw the plane hit the second tower of the 9/11 attack. It was the first time in my life that I can remember being in a building full of adults who had no clue what to do. Teachers without morning classroom assignments began rushing in as they knew I could see the city from my office window.  We all stood there stunned, searching for answers by flipping through news channels on my office television.

I’ll never forget hearing my then principal announce “all is well and we will continue our day unaffected” over the school’s loudspeaker. I recall thinking I didn’t know the answer either but I’m sure that wasn’t it.  By 10 a.m., the phones began buzzing, family members checking in and quickly trying to craft a plan to convene their children and loved ones to safety. Roads were being blocked as first responders throughout the tri-state area scrambled to secure their own communities while attempting to assist the efforts of the first responders on the scene at the World Trade Center.  Amongst the first responders in the medical and public safety fields, school personnel were turned into on-site first responders for their students by fielding questions and distracting them from the horrible reality that we were all experiencing.  It’s important that we don’t take power and control away from the parent by telling their children things they don’t want them to know.  If the opportunity avails, ask the parent how they want you to handle the situation, if at all.  However, if the primary guardian asks you to talk their child about a national tragedy, there are many things you should avoid doing so that you won’t make an already challenging situation more traumatic.

I received a frantic call from a former schoolmate who was unable to get to her child, begging me to pick him up and bring him home with me. Usually, my job was about twenty minutes away from her child’s daycare center; however, it took me over two hours to collect him on that day. Ears glued to the radio, trying to grasp what was happening and scared that there would be another attack to follow, I rehearsed what I was going to say to this four-year-old about why I was picking him up.  I didn’t have children of my own at the time and had never experienced such a catastrophic event but I knew that I had to handle him delicately as he was going to be in my sole care for several hours to follow and I was going to be the adult shaping how he’d remember this day for the rest of his life.

  1. Take a few moments to yourself so you may process what is happening.  Before taking off on an airplane, flight attendants instruct us to put the air mask on ourselves before placing it on the faces of others in our party.  The same holds true when a national tragedy such as a mass shooting strikes. We tend to immediately assess or own proximity to danger, frantically search our minds trying to recall if we might possibly know anyone that might be directly affected and be entranced by breaking news stories updates.   It’s necessary, and healthy, for us to allow ourselves to process what we can in order to prepare ourselves to help the children around us deal with such an enormous emotional load.
  2. Cut out the commentary. The news is a great tool for adults to get accurate information quickly. However, it’s important to be mindful that repetitive information easily becomes engrained in the young mind. Think nursery rhymes. While reputable news outlets are great at capturing our attention, they’re delivering stories in the most dramatic way in order to prevent us from wanting to tune into their competitors. Be mindful of what curious mini onlookers and eavesdroppers are taking in. Children are very in tune to inflection and facial expressions. Cut out the commentary by turning the radio and television off and alerts on personal devices on.  Shield them from receive first hand information by listening to updates via headphones.
  3. Extract what is necessary. It is impossible to predict exactly which pieces of information they will remember for years to come, so be mindful that anything you say might be the very thing they end up recalling. And, if you go off on a tangent it may likely be the thing you didn’t intend for them to remember, will be the thing they do. Therefore, extract and only disseminate information that essential to helping them process what they are capable of understanding.
  4. Take control.  If children are entrusted in our care, we are expected to be older and wiser. Children need information in small doses. Depending on age, an in-depth play-by-play isn’t either necessary or helpful. As a trusted caregiver, be intentional on taking control of what you can including slowing down the world of chaos that is spinning around all of us in a time of mayhem. This includes where they are when you tell them, what you tell them and how you explain the horror that is really beyond words.
  5. Pair bad information with a positive experience. Therapists will oftentimes incorporate play therapy techniques into counseling sessions when asking young clients to recall painful experiences. Soothing activities like coloring or playing with toys make it easier to talk about trauma. Similarly, when attempting to take control a traumatic situation in real time, it is helpful to “break the news” to the child when they’re in a safe place.

During tragic times, it’s likely not necessary to deliver the specifics of who, what, where, when and why to impressionable young children. For example, I was able to create a safe environment for a four year old during the chaos of September 11th by turning off the radio in the car and waiting to we got back to my home to break down what was happening. I kept all news sources off the entire time he was in my home, I sliced a green apple which we shared while I explained that we were going to have to wait longer than usual for his mother to pick him up because something bad happened to a lot of people we don’t know. I further reassured him that his loved ones were okay and that his mom was going to arrive as soon as possible but there was going to be a lot of traffic preventing her from her taking her normal route. We spent the rest of the day playing, coloring and exchanging hugs.

By focusing on pleasureful activities while delivering bad news on an age appropriate level, I was able to mold the way the child recalled the day’s events for years to come. Had I not taken control of the situation, one could only imagine how his perspective may have shifted. What if I played the news in rotation while we waited eight hours for his mother’s arrival or if I concentrated on how some very bad people had killed 2606 people by flying planes into tall buildings in New York City. In the future, might he be scared of people, flying on planes, being in tall buildings and perhaps traveling to the city?