In stressful times, such as a natural disaster (tornado), it is important for families and schools to work together to foster supportive relationships for our students. Caring adults need to help children and youth understand their emotional reactions, to help them engage in positive coping behaviours and to be supportive of each other. Tragic incidents can alter a person’s sense of security thus the importance of offering reassurance to our children and youth. It is also important for adults to understand that experiencing stress and adversity can contribute to internal symptoms such as anxiety, fear or depression and behaviours such as aggression, reactivity or withdrawal.
Children and youth may not understand the context of recent world events and communications they have heard or seen through various media. Below are a few tips that may assist you while helping children and youth to feel safe. Please reach out to your school at any time should you or your children struggle.
Emphasize people’s resiliency
Help children understand the ability of people to come through a tragic event and go on with their lives. Focus on children’s own competencies in terms of how they coped in daily life during difficult times. In age-appropriate terms, identify other crises from which people, communities, or countries have recovered.
Highlight positive outcomes
It can be helpful to notice the good that emerges within tragic events; such as how the world or a community comes together, how people help one another, the heroes that help, and small acts of kindness.
Highlight compassion and humanity
Highlight people’s compassion and humanity. Large-scale tragedies often generate a tremendous outpouring of caring and support from around the country and world. Focus on the help and hopeful thoughts being offered to those affected by other people.
Monitor the news
Images of a disaster or crisis event can become overwhelming, especially if watched repetitively. Young children in particular may not be able to distinguish between images on television and their personal reality. Older children may choose to watch the news, but be available to discuss what they see and to help put it into perspective.
Maintain continuity and normalcy
Allowing children to deal with their reactions is important but so is providing a sense of normalcy. Routine family activities, classes, after-school activities, and friends can help children feel more secure and better able to function.
Spend family time together
Being with family is always important in difficult or sad times. Even if your children are not significantly impacted by this tragedy, this may be a good opportunity to participate in and to appreciate family life. Doing things together reinforces children’s sense of stability and connectedness.
Encourage positive coping strategies
Regular sleep routines and healthy eating are important to emotional well-being. Encourage children to participate in activities they enjoy to help deal with stress.
Children take their emotional cues from the significant adults in their lives. Your reactions are most important. Recognize that some children may be concerned about something bad happening to themselves, family or friends. Explain to them the safety measures in place and reassure them that you and other adults will take care of them.
Be a good listener and observer
Let children guide you to learn how concerned they are or how much information they need. If they are not focused on the tragedy, do not dwell on it. However, be available to answer their questions to the best of your ability. Provide a safe space for them to talk about their fears. Young children may not be able to express themselves verbally. Pay attention to changes in their behavior or social interactions. The following reactions in children or youth may indicate a need for further support: isolation or refusal to attend school, or withdrawal from social activities.
Communicate with your school
Children directly impacted by any trauma may be under a great deal of stress that can be very disruptive to learning. Together, parents and teachers can determine what extra support or leniency students need and work together to develop a plan to help students. Report any instances of bullying or harassment (in-person or on social media) that you become aware of.
Be aware of your own needs
Don’t ignore your own feelings of anxiety, grief, and anger. Talking to friends, family members, priest, and mental health counselors can help. It is important to let your children know that you are sad. You will be better able to support your children if you can express your own emotions in a productive manner. Get appropriate sleep, nutrition, and exercise.
Ask for help
Any tragedy can feel overwhelming for families directly affected, particularly those who have lost loved ones. Staying connected to your community can be extremely helpful. It may also be important to seek additional support from a mental health professional to cope with overwhelming feelings.
Dr. Elizabeth Paquette is the Mental Health Lead for the OCSB. She has been with the Board for 30 years, and is a registered psychologist with an expertise in school psychology.