This is excerpted from the book, Becoming the Parent You Want to Be: A Sourcebook of Strategies for the First Five Years" by Laura Davis and Janis Keyser, the ParentsPlace.com Parenting Experts.
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 apply:
- 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 them.
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?"