This article was written by Julia Cook - a parenting expert and children’s author. Her books have won multiple accolades, including several AEP (American Educational Publishers) Distinguished Achievement Awards, Mom's Choice Awards and National Parenting Seals of Approval. For more information, check out her website.
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When disasters, both natural and man-made occur, educators and parents are faced with the challenge of discussing tragic events with their children and students. Although these might be difficult conversations, they are important and necessary. Here are a few tips that you might find helpful:
1. Remain calm and reassuring.
Create an atmosphere where children are comfortable talking and asking questions.
2. Always answer a child's questions truthfully with simple answers.
You don't need to go into more detail than necessary, but lying to children or making up facts will ultimately confuse them. Eventually, when they find out the truth about what happened, they may struggle with trusting you in the future.
3. Be consistent.
You may be asked to repeat your answers several times. Be consistent in your reply, and realize that your repetitive answers are reassuring a child's "need to know" and building upon their sense of security.
4. Keep a familiar routine.
Children often feel out of control when disasters occur. Keeping with a familiar routine is very important when trying to reestablish the security of feeling in control.
5. If a child asks a question that you do not know the answer to, it's okay to say, "I don't know."
6. Acknowledge and normalize children's thoughts, feelings and reactions. Help children understand why they feel this way.
7. Encourage kids to talk about disaster-related events on their terms.
Never force a child to ask a question or to talk about an incident until he/she is ready.
8. Reassure children that many people out there are helping those who are hurting.
You may want to let your child make a card for someone who is suffering. Giving to those in need of support allows a child to feel like he/she can make a difference in helping with a terrible situation.
9. Keep children away from watching news stations and listening to radio where the disaster is being discussed and replayed.
Sensationalizing the events that have occurred will only upset and confuse your child/students further.
10. Promote positive coping and problem solving skills.
Remember – You are your child’s/students’ coping instructor. Your children/students take note of how you respond to local and national events. They also may be listening to every word you say when you discuss these events with other adults.
11. Emphasize children’s resiliency. Fortunately, most children, even those who are exposed to trauma, are quite resilient.
12. Children who are preoccupied with questions and concerns about safety should be evaluated by a trained mental health professional.
If your child suffers from sleep disturbances, anxiety, recurring fears about death, or severe separation anxiety from parents, contact your school counselor and/or pediatrician.
13. Strengthen friendship and peer support, and foster supportive relationships. There is strength in numbers!
14. Take care of your own needs. In order to be there for others, you have to take care of yourself.
15. Advanced preparation and immediate response will help with healing and coping.
Explain that all schools have safety plans in place that are continually being evaluated and updated. Explain to your child/students that this is a good thing!
I wrote The Ant Hill Disaster after the Sandy Hook tragedy because I wanted to help teachers and parents have very difficult conversations with their children and students. I wanted to be general so that it could be used to discuss both man-made and natural disasters. After the Ant Hill School is destroyed, a little boy ant is afraid to go back to school. His mom caringly explains to him that sometimes things happen in life over which we have no control, but we have to find a way to keep living and growing. To do that…
"We breathe in and breathe out, and hold onto each other. We shed a lot of tears, and we love one another. We all come together as a strong team of ONE, and then we rebuild, and get things done!" – The Ant Hill Disaster
I partnered with Michele Gay, founder of Safe and Sound: A Sandy Hook Initiative on this book, and a portion of the proceeds benefit Safe and Sound's programs to empower safer schools. This book can help assure children that through love, empathetic understanding, preparation, and effective communication, they can stand strong, even in the midst of uncontrollable events.