Helping very young children feel safe in the wake of traumatic public events

by Geoffrey A. Nagle, Ph.D., President and CEO, Erikson Institute

As Chicago, and the nation, awaits a verdict in the highly-publicized trial of police officer Jason Van Dyke for the tragic shooting death of Laquan McDonald, Erikson Institute is focused on the impact that reactions to this controversial event will have on very young children.

At Erikson, we know that early experiences are powerful and lasting. Even infants who cannot comprehend the content of news coverage or conversations are deeply affected by stress in their environment, particularly when intense feelings are expressed by the adults they look to for comfort and protection. We offer the following guidelines to support children’s wellbeing in the wake of traumatic community events:

Reassurance is key. First and foremost, very young children need to feel safe. Parents and caregivers must keep this in mind as they interact with their children following a societal event that has everyone talking on TV, on the street or at child care and school. While adults themselves may feel upset or unsure of what will happen, it is important that they try to remain calm and to reassure their children when they need comfort, maintain consistent family routines, and find ways to address their own feelings with other adults if at all possible when the children are not around.

Limit children’s exposure to the constant newsfeed or conversations about an event. Avoid television or radio coverage, and smartphone/tablet use when the Van Dyke verdict is announced and afterward, as young children do not understand the news cycle and may believe that repeated reports are about new events, not the same one. Even if a child is playing or seems otherwise uninterested when the news is on, they are still listening.

Explain the situation in terms a very young child can understand. For toddlers or preschoolers, describe what is happening in an age-appropriate way: “A person was having a problem and someone called a policeman to come and help and something went wrong and a man died. Some people are really missing him, and some people are mad. But you are safe and I’m here to keep you safe.” Even though sometimes parents do not really feel like they can keep their children safe from all the dangers around them, it is important for children’s healthy development that their parents reassure them that they are safe. These are some of the hardest moments of being a parent.

If your child has an intense emotional reaction and their symptoms do not lessen with conversation, reassurance, and by sticking to regular routines, then consider calling Erikson Institute’s Center for Children and Families and talk to an Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health expert who can work with you to help you help your child. Learn more at https://www.erikson.edu/center-children-families/ or call 312-893-7119.