People are continuously struggling to respond when traumatizing events occur in our communities, across the country and around the world. Videos of these incidents are typically shared across social media platforms and become a constant feature in broadcast news cycles. While adults should prepare to engage young people in conversations about what’s happening around them, we must always consider the well-being of all children, and especially those who may witness or are personally affected by these events.
The entire community is responsible for protecting and supporting children, especially in times of crisis. In empathizing with families, educators and community members who must respond to the needs of children as a traumatizing event unfolds, we’ve gathered recommendations and resources to help guide conversations with young people and to manage potential subsequent actions and reactions. Some LFJ resources contain recommendations from the National Association of School Psychologists, the Child Mind Institute and the American School Counselor Association.
In responding to crisis events, keep the following in mind for conversations with young people:
Listen and Hold Space
Please pay attention to how children respond to news about what is happening in the world around them. When something bad happens, it’s of immediate importance to young people to share their feelings or thoughts, so it will occupy their minds whether you discuss it or not. Hold space for conversations and do not dismiss their questions, concerns or comments. Encourage young people to journal and draw to share their thoughts, or allow them privacy if they choose not to express their feelings at the moment.
Provide a Sense of Safety
Young people need to know they are safe, so be intentional about fostering feelings of safety when they are in your care. Review safety procedures at home and at school and identify adults who children can go to if they feel threatened or unsafe.
As misinformation typically spreads rapidly following a crisis, adults should help young people vet information and have a critical eye for breaking news. For example, if a shooting has occurred, there may be profiles of the shooter meant to cater to stereotypes. Look for trustworthy sources and remain skeptical. Steer young people toward facts and big ideas; avoid speculation.
It’s also vital to monitor screen time. Discourage nonstop, uninterrupted footage of an unfolding crisis. Limiting the consumption of traumatizing media content during a crisis is important to maintaining children’s sense of well-being. Carefully select what to watch together with children so they can discuss and share their feelings about what is happening.
Adults must keep explanations and discussions developmentally appropriate. For example, young children need brief, simple information balanced with reassurance that they are safe.
How we experience and respond to tragic events varies, so be sensitive to people around you, especially young people. Children pick up on your emotions, and your reactions to events can affect them. Show kindness and empathy for feelings that might come up.
Recognize that children may not only fear for themselves, so consider how crisis events might make them worry about losing parents, family members, teachers and others they depend on in their lives. For young children, give comfort and reassurance with gentle words, and don’t dismiss their fears.
Support young children with comfort and give them opportunities to play and share their feelings in multiple ways. Whether in the classroom or at home, engage in stress-reducing activities, such as creating art or utilizing a Peace Corner, where children can have a safe space to process their feelings privately.
Be aware of young people who are managing trauma or who have experienced violence. Monitor reactions and recognize that trauma can manifest in various behaviors, including anger and disengagement. Commit to destigmatizing mental health issues. For example, separate conversations about violence from issues of mental health.
Brainstorm Action Items
Help young people translate feelings of hopelessness or apathy into opportunities to respond with productive action. Join them in brainstorming ways they can support survivors and families experiencing trauma. Activities might include fundraising, volunteering, donating clothes and personal items, attending vigils or protests, signing petitions and writing supportive letters to people affected by tragedy. Read “Digging Deep Into the Social Justice Standards: Action” for ideas on ways to take action in your community.
Embrace Self-Care and Seek Community-Care
We must always care for ourselves and our children’s emotional and mental health needs. Check in with your own feelings and give yourself grace for whatever comes up.
Remember that individual responses and the impact of violence may not be immediately clear, so be observant and maintain open communication, especially with young people. Sometimes anger can manifest in behaviors later, and sadness can become feelings of despair. If you or the children in your life are having a hard time coping with these events (for example, there are signs of sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, or behavioral concerns), please reach out for professional counseling support.
Community care is just as critical as self-care. Lean into your community to receive support and to offer support. Community care may look like donating to mutual aid funds, helping clean up after a disaster, providing food to a neighbor or offering a free service such as transportation.
It’s important to appropriately respond to a crisis. The following resources provide context and offer strategies that aid in creating safe, inclusive environments.
Discussing Race, Racism and Police Violence
- Policing in the United States has a history of violence that disproportionately steals the lives of Black, Indigenous and other people of color along with individuals with disabilities. And despite years of protests, the Black Lives Matter movement, efforts for police reforms, and ongoing cries for justice, we continue to witness and mourn people killed and brutalized by police. These acts of violence—along with the lack of accountability—damages trust and affects young people across the country, prompting parents, caregivers, educators and communities to seek resources on how to address these subjects at home or in the classroom.
- In the Learning for Justice web package Discussing Race, Racism and Police Violence, numerous resources explore the root causes of violent policing in Black and Brown communities, uplift Black and Brown youth and provide strategies to engage in critical conversations with young people about these issues.
Gun Violence in Schools and Communities
- With the proliferation of gun violence in the U.S., we must continue conversations about safety—not just when an incident happens. In “Don’t Stop Talking about Gun Violence,” we recommend unpacking common justifications for policies that do nothing to curb gun violence. This resource also lists some actionable items to help counter gun violence in communities.
- The article “Conversations About Gun Violence, Disinformation and Extremism” offers ways to counter false narratives around gun violence, protect youth’s well-being and bolster community safety.
Identity-Based Violence and Hate Incidents
- When people are targeted with identity-based violence, it compounds the effects of the harm. It’s critical to research and observe a school’s climate in your community and advocate to put in place a plan to address hate, bias, harassment and violence before it happens. LFJ’s resource guide, “Responding to Hate and Bias at School” provides strategies for preventing and addressing these events.
- At home, talk to young people about identity-based incidents, from anti-Asian and anti-Black hate to antisemitism and anti-LGBTQ+ violence. Uplift the value of diversity and inclusion, and model empathy.
Pandemics and Natural Disasters
- There are some things we cannot control. But we can control how we care for one another following catastrophic events. Natural tragedies expose the failings of a non-inclusive and oppressive society. For example, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, we witnessed how Black and Brown people were disproportionately affected. We also witnessed how they were less likely to get medical support and more likely to work jobs that put them at risk for contracting the virus.
- We must not forget the grief and loss many people have experienced since the beginning for the COVID-19 pandemic. And for many children, the effects are ongoing—from the loss of a caregiver or teacher to adjusting to chronic medical issues and new social structures. In the article, “Responding to Children’s Bereavement During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” find additional resources to support young people who are experiencing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Responding to events and tragedies with care and compassion is key to advocating for strengthened communities, making it possible to create a safe and inclusive democracy.
- The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Preventing Youth Radicalization: Building Resilient, Inclusive Communities
- National Association of Child Psychologists’ “Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers” and “Culturally Competent Crisis Response”
- American School Counselor Association’s “Helping Students After a School Shooting”
- The Child Mind Institute’s “Helping Children Cope After a Traumatic Event”
- The Child Mind Institute’s “Going Back to School After a Tragedy”
- ACLU’s “Students’ Rights: Speech, Walkouts, and Other Protests”