Helping Children in Times of Crisis

From "Becoming the Parent You Want to Be: A Sourcebook of Strategies for the First Five Years" Copyright © 1997 by Laura Davis and Janis Keyser. For online information about other Random House, Inc., books and authors, see website at

How you deal with children in a crisis will depend a lot on the specific circumstances,
your child's age, needs, and ability to understand. But certain basic guidelines

  • Find your own sense of optimism. In troubled times, children pick
    up on what we're feeling more than anything else. It's important that we strive
    to find a way to affirm life for them, even if we can't yet do it for ourselves.
  • Get as much practical help as you can. Physical support, like help
    with moving or meals, can make a difference in a time of crisis. Help, in
    all its forms, can free your energies to be with your children, to reassure
    and explain things to them. Often friends are eager -- or at least willing
    -- to help, and allowing them to do so strengthens those relationships and
    builds community.
  • Listen to your child's feelings. Children often have feelings in
    response to changes they can't control. It's outside your power to make everything better, but you can give your children the priceless gift of listening.
  • Give your child the necessary information in simple, positive terms.
    It is important to give your child information about what's happening. Include
    possible positive outcomes, as well as difficult information, whenever you
    can: "I've just lost my job and I'm worried about it. It may take a while
    for me to find a new job, but I'll figure it out." Or, "Since Mommy
    moved out, things have been kind of hard around here. I've been more grumpy and I know that's rough on you sometimes. It's going to take some time, but we'll figure out how to make things work."
  • Tailor your explanations to your child's age and ability to understand.
    Children can be confused by elaborate explanations they can't comprehend.
    Janis explains: "When our friend Wilbur died, Maya was three and I knew
    she didn't have enough of a concept of time to understand the permanence of death. Yet I wanted to explain to her that Wilbur had died. So I tried to
    make my explanation as concrete as I could. I told her, 'Wilbur's body doesn't work anymore. He doesn't walk. He can't eat. He can't give hugs. He can't  visit us. He can't talk on the phone.' And she asked, 'Why are we going to the funeral?' I answered, 'We're going to the funeral to say good-bye to Wilbur.' And she said, 'But, Mom, you said he can't talk!'"

  • Share your feelings with children in an age-appropriate way. It is
    challenging to figure out how to share painful feelings with children. On
    the one hand, it's important to be honest with children about our feelings,
    to give name to the things they can read in our face and our body. They already know that we're upset, so it's important that we share some of our
    pain with them. But it's also important to protect them from the full force
    of our adult responses to serious situations so we don't overwhelm or scare

    When you're wondering what to share with your children in a time of trouble,
    it can help to ask yourself: "Is this sharing primarily to meet my
    needs?" "Or is to meet the needs of my children?" "Do I have another place I can let down my guard and express my deeper feelings about this?"

    Having outside outlets for our feelings can keep us from using our children
    inappropriately as confidants. Expressing our feelings elsewhere can enable
    us be more thoughtful about the sharing we do with our children. You can
    say things like: "I'm sad about Grandpa dying. I miss him. I think
    about the way we all picked apples together. After a while, I won't cry
    so much anymore." This shows your children you're human, reassures
    them, and also gives them the room to express the things they miss about
    Grandpa, too.

  • Differentiate your concerns from those of your children. Adults think
    differently about life changes than children. Adults think in broad terms
    and are able to make long-term projections. Children primarily want to know
    how the change is going to affect them right now.
  • Reassure your children about what will happen to them. Children interpret
    experiences in terms of themselves. They ask questions like, "Will that
    happen to me?" "Who is going to take care of me?" or "Where
    will I sleep?" Respond to children's concerns by giving concrete answers:
    "While Mommy is taking care of Nana, Vivian from next door will take
    care of you. She will make your meals and read you your stories. She will
    help you find clean clothes to wear."
  • Use the situation as an opportunity for teaching. In dealing with
    inevitable life crises, you have the opportunity to teach your children about
    the healthy expression of feelings, about the positive aspects of change,
     and about the human capacity to persevere and continue loving through hard times. Dealing constructively with the disequilibrium caused by changes in the family, even stressful ones, can provide important lessons for children
    which they can call on throughout their lives.