Helping Young Children Cope with Tragedy and Disaster
By Earlychildhood Staff

All of us here at Earlychildhood NEWS send our thoughts and prayers to the families and friends of the seven astronauts who were aboard the space shuttle Columbia.

 As children come to your programs and schools, they’re likely to have questions about the space shuttle and why it did not return safely to Earth. Because young children do not have the verbal skills necessary for expressing their thoughts and feelings, it is important that the adults in their lives take time to explain tragic events calmly and in terms children can understand and to offer them the opportunity to talk about what they may have seen or heard regarding the Columbia tragedy. Earlychildhood NEWS has collected a list of suggestions for parents and early childhood educators to help you help your children cope with this latest tragedy.

Be aware of what your children know and understand about what has taken place. Keep in mind that children are constantly watching adult reactions and listening to what adults say about a situation.

Be a good listener. Most children know that something has happened. If your children do not talk to you about it, bring the subject up and ask them what they think happened. It’s best to make sure that they have the facts rather than allow them to believe misperceptions they may have heard from others.

Demonstrate and maintain a sense of security. When talking to your children, make sure you use normal, calm tones and give information that they can understand. Structure gives children a sense of security so it is good to maintain your usual daily schedule.

Encourage your children to express their fears, concerns, and questions about the events that have taken place. In return, make sure to accept and acknowledge your children’s fears, concerns, and questions about the events that have taken place.

When answering questions about what took place, give children only the information they are seeking. “Over-explaining” the situation may result in further confusion or make them even more scared.

Encourage children to reach out and help. By drawing pictures or sending letters to the families of victims, children really feel that they are doing something to help and to make a difference.

Watch for long-term reactions. Common reactions of children to tragic events can include: nightmares, headaches or other physical complaints, irritability, and social withdrawal. Many children also regress to behavior that they may have out-grown, such as separation anxiety, excessive fear of the dark, bedwetting, and thumbsucking. 

And finally, make sure to stress your children’s safety. Reassure your children that police officers, firefighters, the armed forces, parents, and teachers are available to help people and to make the community a safe place to live. 

 The suggestions listed above have been compiled from the following sources:  “Helping Young Children Cope” by The National Association of Child Care Professionals, “Helping Your Child Cope” by the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, “Suggestions for Adult Caregivers of Preschoolers,” by Judith S. Bloch, ACSW, Variety Child Learning Center, and from “PBS KIDS Resource for Parents”