How to support your child during conflict and crisis situations
Advice for navigating the most difficult times.
When you find yourself facing the unthinkable, having the right words to say to your child can feel like an impossibility. We spoke to UNICEF’s child psychology and mental health expert Dr. Marcia Brophy to provide guidance for parents in an emergency situation.
How can I protect and guide my child when I am feeling scared myself?
Feeling scared is a natural reaction to an abnormal situation – for both you and your child. Check in on your children in an age-appropriate way and give them space to openly and freely share their thoughts and feelings. Because children pick up on emotional cues, whether it’s through body language or facial expressions, trying to keep as calm as possible and speak to your children in a reassuring way is helpful to them. It is okay to share that you are feeling scared too. This helps your child to understand that you are both going through this together.
What are some ways to calm myself and my children?
Deep belly breathing is very helpful and is something you can do together with your older children. If you have a younger child, you could make it into a game: Every hour on the hour, see how you can calm your mind and body down by slowing down your breath. If you feel like you are losing your temper, try giving yourself a 10-second pause and, if possible, find another trusted adult that you can speak to about how you are feeling.
As much as possible, try to maintain some kind of routine such as going to bed or eating at the same time. Though it may be incredibly difficult, this will help your child to feel a bit more connected to their life before the crisis.
We had to leave our home. How can I explain this to my child?
Try to share information in advance, in an age-appropriate way, as much as possible. This gives your children time to process their feelings, and children process things slower than adults do. If you have to evacuate, try laying things out in steps: “we’re going to put our things in our backpacks and we’re going to have to move to a safer space.”
It’s okay to not have all the answers. If you have had to flee your home, be honest that you are not sure whether you are going to return. You could tell your child: “We are away from our home right now, but please know that there are people around us and across the world who are trying their utmost to bring peace again and we hope that we will be able to return to our home at some point, but we just don’t know yet.”
My family has been separated. What should I say to my child?
Let your child know that their loved one is doing everything they can to get back to them. You can be honest that you don’t have an answer right now, but that you are using every opportunity to speak to an organization or an agency to find out more, and you will share information with them as soon as you know. If possible, having a quick phone call or messaging with other family members can be helpful.
For younger children, try to speak about positive experiences you’ve had in the past (“Remember when we went here?”). For adolescents and teens, it’s important for them to be able to speak to their peers if possible. As a parent, have an emotional check in with them after they do so.
One of our loved ones has been killed. How should I tell my child?
If someone close to you and your family has died as a result of the crisis you are in, the most important thing is not to hide or delay the truth. It is natural to want to protect your child, but it is best to be honest. Telling your child what happened will also increase their trust in you and help them to better cope with the loss of their loved one.
We have been hearing a lot of explosions. What can I do for my children while this is going on?
If possible, try to talk to your children in advance, in an age-appropriate manner, about the possibility of this happening and what you will do when it does. You could tell your child: “There are going to be some really loud noises that we’re going to hear, and when that happens, we’re going to move into a safe space, and we’re going to stay there for a while. When we hear the loud noises, we’re going to hug together and we’re going to talk about stories of when we’ve had fun together.” If you have a book, read together. The important thing is to not only sit in silence and focus on the noise around you.
How do I explain the horrible violence being committed around us to my children?
For younger children, it is important to explain that unfortunately in the world, there are people who do bad things sometimes, and that’s what’s happening right now. Assure them that it has nothing to do with your family or you as individuals. Reassure them that there are many people around the world who are working hard to try to stop these bad things from continuing to happen. You can let your child know that you are hopeful that a peaceful solution will come soon without promising that it will.
For older children who have access to mobile phones, check in with them to see what they are reading and hearing. Remind them that there are some people who are angry and hateful, but that the majority of people around the world are kind, peaceful people who are trying to make this stop. Any positive stories that you can find, moments of human connection, try to share those with your children. There are people out there who are doing incredibly courageous things in a horrible situation. Even in the darkest times, there are reasons to hope.