Kindness in a Scary World
TitleTown Publishing has collaborated with Rebecca J. Hubbard, MS, LMFT and Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D. to make this resource available. It is a supplemental guide to our children's book, Kindness in a Scary World.
This guide is being made available to ALL parents, teachers, and caregivers for FREE.
Please share this information with anyone you think might find it helpful. #StaySafe #beKIND
Dr. Robin Gurwitch, a faculty member in the Duke University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Center for Child and Family Health, is a recognized expert in understanding and supporting children in the aftermath of trauma and disasters.
Rebecca Hubbard is a master's level children's, family and marriage therapist with a focus on helping those who have experienced traumatic events. She has been working to heal people for more than 22 years and currently works through Williamson County Children's Advocacy Center in Georgetown, Texas.
The world around us is changing. Unfortunately, terrorist attacks and other acts of violence are becoming all too common. It is hard to turn on the TV or open your computer and not see images of a terrorist attack somewhere in the world.
Children see these images, too. They also recognize that these events upset their parents and other trusted adults. Naturally children have lots and lots of questions. Asking questions is how they learn. Sometimes, though, children do not want to upset their parents even more, so they try to hold their feelings and questions inside.
For the adults, answering those questions or deciding what to say to children who “simply watch” can be difficult. As a result, parents often decide not to say anything for fear that they will say the wrong thing. The last thing they want is to make their children more afraid or confused.
Sometimes, in an effort to protect their children, parents say, “Don’t be afraid.” While the desired effect is to reassure children and help them feel safer, it often has a different result. It can communicate that a child’s feelings are “wrong.” Since they shouldn’t feel that way, questions related to the events are not okay to ask.
One of the most important things parents can do is to have honest, age-appropriate conversations to help their children cope with events in our changing world. At the back of this book is a guide designed to help parents talk about terrorism. The guide is divided into sections so that adults can quickly find what they need.
We suggest that you read the guide before reading this book with your children. We hope this will help you feel better prepared to answer questions your children might ask. This book is meant to be a conversation starter about terrorist attacks. It is our hope that you will share your values with your children about how to be a helpful person, about your faith, values, and beliefs, and how they sustain you.
We also hope you share your view of violence and its use as a response to different ideas and views. We hope you will share with your children how you think people should get along. Offering your opinion about a few helpful ways to make amends when someone has been hurt emotionally or physically will help your child cope.
Lastly, remember to take care of yourself. Turn off the TV, radio, and your computer. Do things that help you feel connected to others like playing with your children or talking with your friends and family. Engage in activities that renew your spirit like doing something kind for someone else. All of these things help restore our hope in humanity and help us feel less alone and afraid.
We hope you will find this book and the guide helpful.
Robin and Rebecca
A Guide for Parents, Caretakers, and Concerned Adults
Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D. and Rebecca J. Hubbard, MS, LMFT
Calming Yourself Before You Talk to Your Child
Terrorist events have an impact on all of us. When you are upset or scared, it can be doubly hard to think about talking to your child. The first thing to do is to calm your body down. For some people, taking deep breaths and letting them out very slowly works. For others, doing something rhythmic like walking, running, or butterfly hugs (placing your arms across your chest and rhythmically patting your arms) helps. Or you might pet your furry family member.
While performing these activities, focus on your body, your breathing, and your heartbeats. Focus on what you are seeing, touching, or smelling. This can help calm the mind. You also might talk to someone you trust before talking to your child. Sharing your concerns with another adult can further settle your body and mind.
Once you feel calmer, check your thoughts. As much as possible, focus on being in the present. When you focus on talking with your child rather than wandering over your own thoughts or worries, the conversation is more sincere. An honest and sincere approach lets your child know that you are truly engaged.
Talking to Your Child About Terrorist Attacks (or Any Difficult Subject)
Start the conversation.
Introduce the reason for the discussion. When you start the conversation, you signal that you are willing to discuss things that are hard, and that you are open to their questions and concerns. For example, you might say:
“There was a horrible shooting. Even though the city was far away from us, people were hurt and people also died. It was very scary. We might have lots of different feelings when something like this happens. You saw some of this on the television. I want to talk to you about this.”
Engage About the Event
Ask your child what they know about the event. Ask them their thoughts about what they saw on television. This provides a good starting point, and will help you understand your child’s worries, fears, and concerns.
Listen for misinformation or misperceptions. Ask why they believe it happened, including anything your child thinks happened as a result of actions or inactions they took. For example, a young child might believe that, because he was angry at his sibling and secretly wished for something bad to happen, his wish “caused” the terrorist attack.
If your child has misinformation, gently correct it. Be sure to provide correct information. Reassure your child that nothing they did or did not do caused the event.
Use Age-appropriate Language
Answer any questions as honestly as you can using words they understand. For example, if your child asks, “Is that person going to hurt us?” they are asking, “Are we safe?” or “Will this happen to us?”
You cannot say that the event will never happen because no one knows the future. You can, however, allay their fears. If the place where you live is removed geographically from the event, you can discuss how the event happened far from your home. Most important is to tell your child how you and other adults are working to keep your family and your community safe.
Know Before You Speak
Handle confusing questions by being sure that you understand what is being asked before you respond. If you are unclear, it is okay to double-check. “You are wanting to know_____, right?” Your child will correct you if needed.
Note: Children in late elementary school grades might ask questions that seem insensitive to adults. This is common. Recognize that the questions they are likely wanting answered are a) Are we okay? or b) Does it hurt when you are dead?
Delete the Details
Providing the gruesome details of a terrorist attack is unnecessary.
You Don’t Have to Know It All
Be okay with not knowing everything. Answer every question to the best of your ability. Sometimes you might not have an answer. It is okay to admit to your child that you do not know.
If it’s possible to find an answer, let your child know you will try to find it. After you do, start a second conversation with your child and provide the information. This will increase the likelihood that your child will come to you with difficult questions in the future.
Share Your Feelings
Be honest about your feelings without overwhelming your child. It can be frightening when adults pretend to not feel upset. Children might wonder if it is okay for them to be upset.
Continue to Check In
After your conversation, your child will likely have more questions or concerns. Return to the discussion later that same day or a couple of days later to allow for further exploration.
End with Comfort
End the conversation by letting your child know that you are always available to talk about anything. You might say:
“I know this was hard to talk about but I’m glad we did. If you have any questions about this or anything that worries you, I’m always here to talk.”
After the conversation, do something positive or fun with your child. This could be reading a book together, taking a walk, sharing a snack, or watching a favorite video.
Common Questions About Death
Since discussing death with children is difficult, adults often use euphemisms like telling a child that someone is asleep or is visiting God. This can make children afraid of going to sleep or make them think that a person will return.
It is all right to use the word “dead.” Be sure to explain what this means in a way that your child can understand.
Does it hurt when you die?
Children understand death differently at different ages. For young children, it is important to help them understand that someone who has died can no longer feel pain and no longer becomes hungry or thirsty. They are gone and will not come back. We will not see them like we did before. But we can hold them in our hearts. We might talk to them but they can’t answer us.
What happens when you die?
Questions about death can be challenging. This is the time to share your beliefs about death.
Can this happen again?
Questions about death after a terrorist attack include concerns that the responsible people can hurt someone again. If the instigators are dead, let your child know that. Tell them that those people can never, ever hurt anyone again.
If the instigators have been captured, let your child know that the police have arrested them. Tell your child that the police and other adults are going to make sure that they can never hurt anyone again.
Are you okay?
Your child might recognize that you are upset after a terrorist attack. It is okay to share that you are upset and sad. This allows your child to share their feelings with you. It is even okay if they see you cry.
Also let your child know that you believe that you and the child will be okay. You can be sad or scared and also find ways to be happy and enjoy activities.
The child might also ask if you are going to die. While you can’t promise to live forever, you can say, “I am doing everything I can to stay healthy and to live a very long time.”
Answering Your Child’s Questions
Help your child using these simple steps.
Limit your child’s exposure to the news. Young children do not understand that the news replays the event. They often think that a new event has occurred, which increases their fear.
Monitor what your child watches on TV or the computer. Talk about what they might see.
Monitor adult conversations. Children seem to “hear all and see all.” They will fill in what they do not understand, which often increases their worries, fears, and confusion.
Maintain your family routine as much as possible. Routines and consistency help children feel safe.
Do things as a family that help everyone keep their emotions from becoming overwhelming. Talking is an important step. Consider other activities as well like playing together, talking a walk or bike ride, dancing, or singing. Even drawing can help.
Obtain support for yourself so that you can be as calm as possible for your child. You might talk to a trusted family member or friend, a faith leader, or a mental health professional.
Validate your child’s feelings. Just as you have your feelings, your child will their own feelings. There are no right and wrong feelings. By acknowledging the feelings and accepting them, you can then discuss ways to feel better.
Help children understand that they might experience many different feelings at the same time. They might be sad about what happened and happy to be safe or excited about an upcoming activity with friends. All of these are okay.
Note: If your child expresses hate, address this directly. What is the message and value about others you wish to share?
Discuss the steps you and others take to help your family stay safe.
Discuss the family plan for what to do if something happens.
Find ways for your child to feel like they are making a difference. These actions will vary by age. Listen to their ideas; they will often have wonderful ones! Discuss ways your family can help others and put that plan into action. Finding small ways to help others, even when we are distressed, helps everyone feel better. It increases the sense of hope.
Be a good role model. Children learn more from what we do than from what we say. If you want your child to be kind to others then let them see you being kind and speaking kindly to others.Show your child how to express sad and angry feelings in ways that are not harmful to others. Help your child be empathetic toward others by showing your child and others empathy.
Be patient with yourself and your child. Remember that these events are very upsetting emotionally. They are also disruptive to our bodies. Understanding this helps you approach yourself and your child with compassion. A little extra patience, time, attention and love go a long way!
Signs That Your Child is Having Difficulty Coping
Children might have reactions, just as you might. This is common. However, if these reactions interfere with day-to-day functioning with family and friends or at school, this could be a concern.
Everyone has a unique timeline for coping with a stressful event but most of us are doing well within about a month. By knowing about stress reactions, we can support coping from the very beginning. Stress reactions can show up as new behaviors or an increase in existing behaviors such as:
Difficulty sleeping (falling asleep or staying asleep)
Changes in appetite
Difficulty being away from you
Temper tantrums or irritability
Difficulties with changes in routine
Difficulty playing alone or more conflict with friends
Talking or playing about the event all the time as if they are stuck playing the event over and over
Difficulty coping with past traumatic experiences you thought had been resolved but that seem to be returning
Loss of skills they previously had (self-care, language, toileting behaviors)
Poor attention and concentration (forgetting things or not following through as before)
If these difficulties do not lessen within a few weeks, please seek help for your child.
Finding Extra Support or Help
Being a parent is a challenging but rewarding job. Any time you are unsure, it is okay to ask for advice, support and help. Sometimes this is in the form of mental health.
Mental health is no different than physical health. If your child broke a bone then you would take your child to the doctor. The signs listed above are a few indications that your child needs extra help coping.
Talk to a mental health provider who specializes in treating trauma and children, or talk to your child’s pediatrician about your concerns.
Note for special case with death or other loss: If your child has experienced a loss due to the events, they might experience greater difficulty coping. Coping with the grief combined with coping with the trauma might be extremely challenging. Professionals can help you and your family.
The good news is that, even after horrific events, most children will recover. For those who need a bit of extra support and help, exceptional treatments will lead to a positive recovery for them and you.
National Child Traumatic Stress Network: nctsn.org
Resources on terrorism: http://www.nctsn.org/trauma-types/terrorism
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): samhsa.gov
Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event: A Guide for Parents, Caregivers, and Teachers: store.samhsa.gov/product/Tips-for-Talking-With-and-Helping-Children-and-Youth-Cope-After-a-Disaster-or-Traumatic-Event-A-Guide-for-Parents-Caregivers-and-Teachers/SMA12-4732
Zero to Three: zerotothree.org
Resources to Help Young Children
American Psychological Association: www.psychologybenefits.org
The authors of this book often post blogs around talking to children about difficult topics. For example, two recent entries cover the Orlando shooting and the shootings in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Minnesota.