Helping children through a crisis



 By Sandy Spurgeon McDaniel


Children cannot comprehend the many crises that have penetrated our globe and overwhelmed our news. Parents are at a loss as to what to say or how to comfort their children. Here are some guidelines:

1. Do not expose children to television, computer or even personal conversations about a crisis. On the morning of the attack on the World Trade Center, a mother spewed out all her fear to a friend she was talking to on the phone. Her children heard every word and were impacted by their mother's fear. Children are ALWAYS listening. Keep private topics private. Hush!

2. It is easy to forget how intuitive children are, especially small children. When an adult is pretending that everything is fine, the child's feelings inside do not match; something wrong is intuited. Out of the blue a child will ask, “Mommy are you upset?”

How did the child know? Instead of saying you feel fine when you don't, say, “I'm a little upset right now. It is not about you. I could use one of your special hugs.”

3. When you are talking to a child, be brief and be specific (such as regarding 9/11), “I don't know if we will go to war. Let's wait and see what happens. Meanwhile, let's send love to the people in New York. There is no point for any of us to speculate on what is going to happen next.”

Rather than leaving the conversation open for more probing, give the child something positive to do. “Dinner is going to be ready in a few minutes; could you help me set the table?” you might ask.

4. It is difficult to teach children not to be afraid when we are afraid. Many adults and children have nightmares following a crisis. There is no easy fix or solution to many crises. Telling a child it is fine or will be all right won't cut it — especially if the person delivering that message does not believe those words. Comfort your child. Love your child. Change channels by getting the child to sing a song or tell a familiar story.

Children have wonderful imaginations. Sometimes it works to take a bad dream, put it into a box and put it outside the bedroom door. This asks the child to put a fear aside without asking the child to give up the fear. It is extremely harmful to negate a fear by calling it “silly.” Fears are personal and real for the person dealing with them.

5. To children who talk about hateful retaliations, say, “It is important to send love not anger to this situation. More anger won't help. Love is a great healer; love can help. Let's send love to the people in (New York, for instance.)”

A teenager, faced with comments from students who wanted to bomb the bad guys, commented, “Okay, how is killing a bunch of innocent people different from what they just did to us?”

Hatred is the root of the crisis. If we meet hatred with hatred, how are we different from the enemy? If we teach our children hate, how will it stop?

An inevitable crisis comes when a family member is very ill. Children automatically ask, “Is (grandma) going to die?”

You are not a prophet. Answer directly and keep it simple: “We just don't know how long (grandma) is going to live. Our job is to love her every minute she is with us, and help her by reading her a story, singing a song or just holding her hand.”

It is important not to put your sadness on the children because they are too little to carry it. It is also important not to try to hide sadness. It'a okay to say, “I am feeling sad because (grandma) is sick and I can't fix it. I could use one of your special songs right now.”

What is important in any crisis is that your children feel safe. Answering questions without lecturing or dumping your feelings on the child are difficult to do, and it is your job to help everyone in the family be grounded so you can all function. You might need to go to the gym or go for a walk in the woods to calm down yourself, and your children will learn how to handle a crisis by the way you handle the one in front of you.

(For dates of Sandy's parenting talks at St Luke's Hospital, go to



For 54 years, Sandy has been an international speaker and recognized authority on families and children. Author of five books, columnist, founder of, she is a resident of Meridian and loves spending time with her three Idaho grandchicks. Semi-retired, she speaks to schools, churches, and MOPS groups and provides parent coaching sessions in person and on the phone.