As I watched the news of the fires raging in Colorado, near the homes of my friends and family, my heart went out to everyone. I well remember the sense of doom we all felt here a couple of years ago, as fires raged near my own community, the smoke choking all of us, the gloomy sky, the brave firefighters, and the frightened families who had to evacuate, not knowing if they would have a house to return to.
Disasters remind us that we are vulnerable, that the physical security of ourselves and those we care about is not guaranteed, and that our world can change in an instant.
Our challenge when a disaster threatens or strikes is to keep finding our balance. In this uncertain world, the truest safety we have is the safety we create within ourselves. If we express calm and determination as we take charge of safety in the midst of uncertainty, our children will follow our lead.
The truth is that we cannot control everything that happens to us. We have to accept that some things are out of our control so that we can live our lives to the fullest while taking care of the things that are under our control.
Most of us, in the weeks and months after a traumatic event, will have the opportunity for conversations about this disaster both with children and with adults. We can help create safe emotional spaces for the people around us to find healing, perspective, and paths to meaningful action. The most powerful meaning we can make of any tragedy is to work together to create a better world for everyone.
When frightening events take place, most children are likely to become aware that something is wrong directly or by learning about it from others. It is important to realize that the wave of reaction in children’s lives often gets bigger before it gets smaller. While we don’t want to create more fear, we do want to address any concerns that children already have in ways that are age appropriate and empowering.
Here Are Some Actions You Can Take for Your Children and Yourselves
Get Support for Your Feelings, but Do Not Process Your Feelings with Your Children
It is normal to feel sad, scared, and angry when bad things happen. For their emotional safety, your children need your hope and confidence, not your despair and fear. Be aware that children often overhear adults when they appear not to be listening. Give yourself space to express your feelings with other adults, to nurture yourself and then to move into positive action.
Get Help If You Are Feeling Anxious or Depressed
Even when bad things happen, our kids need to see us living our lives as joyfully and fully as possible. Talk with family or friends. Go to professional counseling if you need to. You do not have to be upset all alone.
Manage a burst of anxiety by doing the same centering exercise we teach in our classes–feel your feet by wiggling your toes, feel your hands by opening them and pressing them against something, loosen your elbows and knees, take a breath and let it out, then another; now, look around and focus on something near you.
In a calm way, give kids space to talk about feelings while focusing on things they CAN do to stay safe.
Tell children the same thing we need to remember ourselves, “This is scary and very sad. But we are okay and we can keep ourselves safe most of the time, if we know how to do a few things and have a safety plan.”
Create Openings to Talk Frightening or Upsetting Things With Your Kids
In a calm, matter-of-fact way, occasionally ask your children and teens, “Is there anything that you have been wondering or worrying about that you have not told me?”
Talk to Your Child if You Have Not Done so Already
For a younger child, you can explain even big upsetting events in a calm simple way. For example, about a fire, you might say, “There is a big fire. We might need to leave so we are going to get ready. We will make sure that everyone is safe.”
Limit Children’s Exposure to the Media so They Are not Bombarded with Terrifying Images
Just as you would control what your children eat so that they do not get sick, control what media your children are seeing and hearing as much as possible. Consider limiting your own exposure as well. There is a difference between staying informed so we can take action if need be and traumatizing ourselves unnecessarily.
Focus on What You CAN Do
Both children and adults have the power to make a difference through daily actions. By working together as a community, your actions can create change. Work together to prepare for the next disaster. Speak up against the harm that people do to each other because of prejudice and lack of understanding.
Viktor Frankl was a psychotherapist who was imprisoned in concentration camps in World War II. In that hopeless terrifying setting, he came to the conclusion that, while he could not control most outside events, he could choose how he would respond to those events. He created a form of psychotherapy called Logotherapy, which helps people heal by making meaning of their lives.
Most often, we can take charge of our safety. When things are out of our control, it is important to remember that, like Viktor Frankl, we can still choose to create safety within ourselves.
Note: I first wrote this article in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The messages continue to be true today.
Kidpower is short for Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International, a non-profit leader in “People Safety” education and training for people of all ages. Visit Kidpower.org for free Library resources, affordable publications, in-person workshops, and consultation.