When something terrible happens, it can come as a shock to a child, as well as to their caregivers or professionals who work with children. This is also true of hearing or reading about such events.
As important and protective adult figures, we are always ready to help and support children who are in distress. However, we may not always know what to say or do. It is crucial to remember that how we act and what we say can have a significant impact on the children around us. Here are some tips on how to help children in distress, and what to avoid:
Listening is one of the most important ways through which caregivers and professionals can tune into the child’s needs and concerns. When we listen, it is not only about what we say but also what we do (e.g. body language and facial expressions).
What we do
Our body language, eye contact and facial expressions can tell a child how interested we are in what they are saying. To that effect, these three areas are good starting points to show a child that we are listening attentively:
1. Body posture
Keep a relaxed and open posture. Lean forward slightly to demonstrate that you are present and interested in the child’s experience.
2. Eye contact
Go down to the child’s level, so that you can maintain eye contact; yes, this might mean having to squat down if you are talking to a young child! This conveys interest and reassurance. Looming over a child makes an individual appear more intimidating.
3. Facial expression
Be mindful of your facial expression; aim for a soft and gentle one. Erase that frown!
What we say
The words that we use have a big impact on a child, especially after a crisis event when concerned adults want to check in with the child. Our choice of words can convey our understanding of the child’s experience.
Talking in a calm, gentle tone helps to make a child feel more comfortable.
It is important to remember that some responses tend to be more helpful than others when children are in distress. Responses that help a child feel understood make it easier for them to share their experience. Talking in a calm, gentle tone also helps to make a child feel more comfortable.
1. Keep phrases short and simple.
- “This is a really hard time for you.”
- “It’s really painful for you right now.”
2. Use appropriate language, depending on the age of the child.
- “Where are mummy and daddy?” (vs. “Where are your parents?”) to a 5–year–old
3. Use words that make the child feel safe, calm, supported, and heard.
- “I am here for you; take as much time as you need.”
4. Reflect and repeat.
- Repeat or paraphrase the child’s words/phrases
- Label feelings that you see/observe
- Summarise what you understand e.g. “You seem sad now because your friend is hurt.”
5. Respect the child’s wishes if they don’t wish to talk at that point in time.
- “It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it right now. I’ll be right here for you whenever you feel like talking.”
On the other hand, responses that minimise how a child is feeling may be unhelpful in creating a space for a child to feel comfortable enough to share their experience. In particular, minimising phrases (including spiritual phrases) can be very painful to hear, especially if the child is grieving a loss.
1. Lecturing or giving advice.
- “Think positive.”
- “Try to forget it and move on.”
- “It’s okay… you can always make new friends.”
2. Using minimising statements (including spiritual phrases).
- “It could have been worse”
- “It’s okay, you are still young.”
- “God has a plan.”
3. Comparing what the child has lost to something they have right now.
- “At least you didn’t die/get injured/etc.”
- “At least you still have [the surviving parent/caregiver/friend].”
4. Providing unhelpful expectations.
- “You must be strong/brave for your family.”
- “You are a big boy/girl. Don’t cry.”
- “I can help you solve your problems.”
- “Everything will be okay/fine.”
- “Time heals all wounds.”
Let the child know that you are truly concerned about them and want to ensure that they can reach out to talk anytime. This means you may need to be able to work around your schedule so that you are available for them; this also means no multi–tasking!
Listening to children who may have experienced crisis events also means paying attention to when they might need extra support—this can be done by linking them up to their school counsellors or other professionals e.g. psychologists in tertiary settings.
By listening to children in this way, we, as supportive adults, can create a safe space for them to understand and cope with their feelings during times of crisis.
This article is contributed by KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital.
This article was first published on Trauma Network for Children’s Quick Bytes Newsletter and is republished with permission.
The Stay Prepared – Trauma Network for Children (TNC) programme is a joint collaboration between KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH) and Temasek Foundation. It aims to enhance the psychosocial capability of the Singapore community to support children and youth after crises or traumatic events. For more resources, visit the Trauma Network for Children Website at www.childtraumanetwork.sg.