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Our hearts go out to each person whose life is devastated by a disaster – whether caused by a world-wide pandemic, terrorist attack, a raging fire, a major earthquake, a huge hurricane, a life-threatening illness, a cruel act of violence, or a terrible accident. We are filled with sorrow for the suffering caused – and with gratitude for each person who helps to rescue and support those in need. Keeping our emotional balance during traumatic times is challenging – and we also need to remember to protect the emotional safety of our kids.

The following article was first written after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks – and has been shared many times since because the advice can apply to all kinds of heartbreaking events.

No matter what the cause – whether it affects one person or billions – a sudden disaster is a shocking reminder that we are vulnerable; that the physical security of ourselves and those we care about is not guaranteed; and that our life can change in an instant.

Our challenge in the midst of experiencing or witnessing suffering and loss is to keep finding our balance. We need to remember that, in this uncertain world, the truest safety we have is the safety we create within ourselves.

Feeling hopeless and helpless in the face of terrorism and violence only makes us miserable–and accomplishes the goal of terrorism, which is to create widespread fear and instability. Feeling powerless in the face of a natural disaster or a disease is normal – and keeps us from focusing on what we CAN to do to make the best of the situation, to survive, to help others and to recover.

If a disaster happens to us or to our loved ones, coping with the pain and grief left in its wake is hard. We want life to be the same as it was before, and it’s not. Even if we are not directly affected, when we hear stories about disasters happening to others, we are likely to feel sorrow for those who are harmed – and fear that something like this might happen to us. Often, our kids feel the same way.

The reality 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 charge of the things that are under our control.

The most powerful way we can respond to any tragedy is to support each other and to work together to create a better world for everyone. Even if we are frightened and sad ourselves, we can focus on creating safe emotional spaces for everyone to find healing, perspective, hope, and paths to healing action.

These 7 steps to creating safety inside our children and ourselves are described below:

  1. Get Support for Your Feelings, But Do NOT Process Your Feelings Around Children
  2. Get Help If You Are Feeling Anxious or Depressed
  3. Listen To Kids
  4. Talk With Your Child Before They Hear About the Disaster From Someone Else
  5. Limit Children’s Exposure to the Media so They Are not Bombarded with Terrifying Images
  6. Take a Stand Against the Hatred that Gets Born of Fear
  7. Focus on What You CAN Do

1. Get Support for Your Feelings, But Do NOT Process Your Feelings Around Children

Feeling sad, scared, and angry when bad things happen is normal for all of us. In the mist of our own overwhelm, we must put the needs of our children first.

How adults respond will have huge impact on their children’s long-term well-being. For their emotional safety, our children need our hope and confidence, not our despair and fear. Be aware that children who don’t seem to be listening often hear everything as their adults talk on the phone, on Zoom, or to each other. Give yourself space to express your feelings with other adults in places where your kids cannot overhear you. Nurture yourself so that you can move into positive action.

2. Get Help If You Are Feeling Anxious or Depressed

In order to take care of our children for the long run, we must take care of ourselves. 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. Seek professional counseling if you need to, whether this is by phone, video, or in person – whatever works for your own current situation. Seek the kind of spiritual guidance that is meaningful to you. You do not have to be upset all alone.

You can manage a burst of anxiety by doing the same short and simple 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, if you can, choose a memory or sight that can help bring you joy or calm.

3. Listen To Kids

In a calm way, give kids space to talk about feelings while focusing on things they CAN do to stay safe. Be supportive without diving into their upset feelings with them or processing them in detail.

Give children the same reassurance we need to keep telling ourselves, “What happened (or, is happening) is scary and very sad. AND we can keep ourselves safe most of the time. We will learn what we need to learn and make safety plans to protect ourselves as best we can.”

4. Talk With Your Child Before They Hear About the Disaster From Someone Else

When a major tragedy takes place, kids are likely to hear or see something either at school, online, from television, on the car radio, or by listening to the adults around them talking to each other. If a major disaster such as a pandemic, fire or earthquake causes significant disruption to their lives, they need our help in understanding why. 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.

Do your best to protect younger children from bad news since worrying about things they cannot control just makes kids anxious without making them safer. For a child who you think may hear about this on media or from others, you can explain even big upsetting events by keeping what you say simple, sounding reassuring, and NOT providing or dwelling on details.

  • First, set the stage. For example, “Something sad happened that hurt a lot of people. We are okay, but you might hear about this, and I want you to know what happened.” Or, “We are going to need to stay home for a while in order to stay healthy.”
  • Next, state simply what happened or is happening with no vivid details. For example, “ There are germs that are making a lot of people sick.” Or, “A kid with big problems came into a school and shot kids and teachers.” Or, “There is a big fire near us. We might have to leave quickly.“ Or, “There is a big flood far away. Many people are having to leave their homes.” Or, “ A few people did something very bad. They crashed airplanes into some big buildings, and many people died.”
  • Then, provide truthful reassurance. For example, “I am going to do everything in my power to make SURE we are safe!” Or, “We can stay healthy most of the time by washing our hands and wearing masks when we go out of the house. Lots of very smart people are working hard to find a cure and a vaccination.” Or, “Even though this is far away from here, let’s think of what we can do so people know we care.” Or, “Many people are making safety plans to help keep this from happening again.”
  • Finally, encourage continued communication. For example, “Do you have any questions? If you get worried, or start thinking about it a lot, I want you to tell me so we can talk.”

5. 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 by overexposure to difficult news.

6. Take a Stand Against the Hatred that Gets Born of Fear

When people are overwhelmed and traumatized, it is normal to become afraid. When people are afraid, we are more likely to get upset and to lash out at others, especially if they are different in ways that might make us uncomfortable.

Whenever a prejudiced comment is made, take a stand. Our post Protecting Asian Americans from Identity Attack During the Pandemic offers some examples. Remind yourself and others that, “One of the wonderful things about our world is that it’s full of people from all different places, with different shapes, sizes, colors, beliefs, identities, and ideas. A few people doing something bad does not mean that everyone who has a similar identity is also bad. In fact, most people, no matter what their differences are, are GOOD.”

Make distinctions based on actual behavior rather than assuming that people who share some characteristics are also likely to support violence or to cause other harm.

7. Focus on What You CAN Do

Taking positive action can replace helplessness with competence and confidence – and despair with healing and hope – leading to preventing and reducing much suffering and trauma. Protecting our emotional safety, strengthening our relationships, finding creative solutions to adapt to change, and advocating for ourselves and others can make a lasting difference in our lives.

Both children and adults have the power to make a difference through our daily actions. By working together as a community, our actions can create change. Show caring and solidarity for others who are struggling by doing supportive actions, even simple ones like posting a caring message on social media or providing a useful link to those you think might be helped by it.

Do something to help someone else by listening, showing you care, or giving a helping hand. For example, you can send donations or volunteer time to relief organizations or other causes important to you. Even small amounts help. You can work together with others to prepare for the next disaster. You can 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 and to extend compassion to others.

The most important meaning we can make of any tragedy is to work together to create a better world for everyone.

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Published: August 31, 2017   |   Last Updated: July 15, 2020

Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, and the Amazon Best Seller Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels.


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