Like little bees to Spring flowers, children are drawn to any activity involving emergency vehicles coming into their neighborhood, lights flashing and sirens blaring.
When dealing with children in a crisis situation it is most important to realize that not only the children intimately involved in the crisis are “clients” but also what is being experienced by the young spectators should be addressed. Each reacts to the critical incident with similar reactions involving only minor differences in intensity…sometimes.
Not having a reference point, children tend to react based on the adults around them. Hyper activity, open concern, grief and anger on the part of adults solicit reactions from children.
A primary reaction is fear, fear of re-occurrence. At night, while in bed, spectator children become fearful that the crisis, whether death, fire or illness, will be visited upon their home.
Those directly involved will react with fear when reminded anytime some portion of the incident is presented. A fire truck or ambulance responding to a call, a funeral caravan, or visiting a hospital.
As with everything else, a child’s coping mechanisms mature with age. Open discussions and the asking age appropriate questions about how they are feeling and thinking will determine how well they are handling the emotional aspects of the crisis as presented.
The youngest (under age 2) don’t understand and pick up their cues from the adults. They are better reassured by non-verbal communication such as hugs and physical touch. Positive reassurances are well received.
Pre-schoolers tend to ask the “why” questions. What happened, what is happening, why did it happen. Regressive behavior is their usual first response. It is important to return them to their normal daily routine. They will replay the incident in their play activities.
Pre-teens work best with absolutes. They have a difficult time comprehending abstract answer. What happened, what is be done, black and white. When dealing with the death they want to know about the deceased and their life. It is a way of prolonging the memory of them. They will attempt to hide their emotions, become withdrawn, lose interest in school, friends or even socializing through play.
Teens are not unlike Pre-teens but they tend to personalize the events, fear the future. They too will mask feelings with repressive behavior. They can internalize the issue to the point of becoming physically ill. Anger at the loss is not uncommon.
CR Actions With Children
Within the environment at the moment, attempt to provide “space” physically and emotionally for the children where they can share their thoughts and reactions to the event. They may make jokes which is a reaction to anxiety. Always be truthful and concise about the crisis, don’t sugar coat what has transpired. Be prepared to respond to the same questions multiple times until the child sorts things out and develops coping mechanisms for themselves. In the short term after the immediate incident, understand that anger and denial are very real and exercise and structured activities help them in relieving some of the tension that has built up. Reassure children that their daily arrangements are being looked after for them. It is important for them, as with adults, to get back into a normal routine.
For more information concerning the process of Crisis Response Management, see Lesson #5 – The Crisis Responder And Dealing With Death