Gun violence is present in most communities today and as our first blog post in this series highlighted, the leading cause of death for children in the United States. Further, exposure to gun violence whether directly, through the media or overhearing adults’ conversations can greatly impact the mental health of young children. In this blog post, we explore what parents, caregivers, teachers, and others can do to support young children’s mental health.
Strategies to help infants and young children make sense of their experiences
Young children are keen observers who constantly take in information through every sense – to learn and develop, but also to make sense of the world. We know that when children can make sense of their experiences, their mind, body, and behavior will calm down.
- The best and number one strategy is to talk to children about their experiences.
- Explain in as many ways as possible to help your child feel more confident that someone will be there to take care of their needs. An example of this would be: You are safe here; I know you are hungry and I am trying to figure out what you like to eat.
- Tell a story about what your child might be feeling about what happened that connects their feelings to their behavior. An example of this would be: You are biting/hitting/crying because you are upset and confused about what happened.
- Convey hope to your child through your explanations. Provide developmentally-appropriate and truthful information without making false promises or making negative comments. An example of this would be: Seeing that man and the police was scary. I will do everything I can to keep us safe now.
- Make sure children know that it is not their fault. An example would be: It is not your fault that mommy got hurt. You didn’t do anything to cause this, and it is not your job to keep mommy safe. The doctors are going to help mommy feel better. This approach will help build trust.
- Stay calm and prioritize safety. As a caregiver and provider, your own feelings and reactions will come up during a crisis or when your child is having a strong reaction to what happened at a later date. It is important to try to stay calm and prioritize safety.
- You can say: I am here to keep you safe. I am taking a deep breath to help me stay calm. Monitor your tone of voice. Avoid showing fear in response to the child’s strong emotional behavior.
- Building a child’s confidence and trust is important. You can say: You are safe here. It’s not your fault your grownup isn’t with you. Your parents have to stay with the guards but are trying hard to be with you again.
- If you were not able to stay calm and regulate in the moment, talk to your child later when you are calm. Explain, apologize, and ask the child what is bothering them.
- Are you struggling to stay calm? You can’t help your child because you’re triggered every time your child has that big outburst or brings the event up? This is a good cue to seek some help for yourself, possibly through individual or parent-child therapy.
- The language of children is play. Remember the power of relationships and connection, especially in response to scary experiences.
- Plan for uninterrupted play time with your child.
- Let your child take the lead, get to know them. Offer a choice of toys and let the child pick.
- Talk to your child in their language and with a tone of voice that is calming.
- Sometimes silence and “being with the child” is fine too. Make your interactions warm and positive.
- Cuddle, touch, have close physical contact and show affection – If you are allowed and your child wants it. Say: I want to know more about you.
Our next blog post will explore how adults can talk to preschoolers about lockdown drills.
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