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How to support children with challenge, crisis or trauma. (cert-4-£1)

Updated: May 15, 2021

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Children in crisis

Children may face a variety of difficulties in their lives and what may be devastating to one child, another may take in their stride. How we react to those situations may help children cope with a challenging situation, crisis or trauma.

It is important to recognise that during a challenging situation, crisis or trauma, everyday life may change significantly. Even the basics such as meal times, a child’s home, their clothing and normal routines may change. It is really important to recognise the signs and symptoms that a child may be finding a situation difficult, particularly if they are showing signs of feeling fearful, worried, isolated (from familiar adults, for example parents, grandparents, early years educator), uncertain about their future (remember that to children the ‘future’ can mean the next few minutes, an hour or day) or a perception of danger.

Knowing how children of the same age would react to challenging circumstances is helpful in trying to identify signs and symptoms, but it is important to remember that not at all signs and symptoms will be present or totally reliable as children will respond to situations as individuals; all in different ways. Most often a child’s parents or early years educator will be able to identify the child’s usual behaviour and therefore, will be able to recognise what is different about the child during a challenging situation.

Signs and Symptoms

Remember these signs and symptoms will not necessarily mean that the child is struggling in the situation, they are all normal reactions to a traumatic situation. It is IMPORTANT to look for these if the child’s behaviour has changed or they are not acting as they normally would. Also remember that adults should respond in a calm and caring way to support the child.

Changes in behaviour that you may observe, include:

· Requires more attention than normal

· Common childhood fears may intensify, for example the fear of the dark

· Unusually irritable

· Sleeping difficulties

· Reoccurring stomach aches and headaches (especially if the child is too young to verbalise how they feel)

· Unusually overly emotional or tearful

· Unusually under emotional for their age or seem ‘numb’ to situations

· Uses inappropriate language, comments or actions, for example a preoccupation with death or losing a parent

· Appears unusually ‘on edge’ or ‘jumpy’

· Chooses to isolate self from others, seems quiet and/or withdrawn

· Makes minimal or no eye contact

· A change in attention span, showing an inability to focus on tasks or quickly moves on to new ones

· Constantly tired and not motivated

· Behaviour or development may regress, for example a child who is potty trained may return to nappies during the challenging time period.

Remember that each child is different and may exhibit one, some or none of these changes in behaviour.

How to support the child

After a challenging event, traumatic experience or crisis it is important that parents or early years educators provide coping skills, encourage children’s resilience and support them to feel safe and secure as much as possible in the situation. Consider the following strategies to support the child:

· Trusted Adults- it is essential that the child feels they have a trusted adult in their life who is consistent and makes them feel safe and secure.

· Help to soothe the child- by reading comforting stories, playing soothing music and providing comfort foods (within reason to ensure a balanced diet). Children need to be reassured with words and hugs.

· Create a sense of safety- this will help the child to feel more secure, offering the child physical comforts and your protection, for example comforting objects- toys, blankets etc. Spend time with the child to restore a sense of security.

· Limit a child’s exposure to the news- images and sounds can be graphic and troubling for children, avoid relying on the news to give children information. News reports can be dramatic and overwhelming for children, this can make a child internalise their worries and make it harder for them to express their concerns. It is important to decide how you want to relay information to the child and ensure that it is at the correct level for their age and emotional well-being. Sharing information at the right level for the child can also avoid confusion. Stick to appropriate facts and reassure the child about their safety.

· Do not lie- it is important to consider the age of the child and decide how much information is appropriate for them and will not unnecessarily scare them. However, avoid telling a child an ‘untruth’ as the truth can come out (from other adults or on the television). This could damage the child’s trust in you and this can make them feel unsafe and insecure. Difficult information should be delivered to the child in a way that is appropriate for them and so that they can understand. As a parent or an early year’s educator you know the child well, think about how they may respond and what they will understand. For example, it is very difficult for a small child to understand death and that they may not see a family member again. For further information on supporting children to understand death, please follow the link to a very useful article, Marie Curie. Talking to Children About Death. Available at:

(Accessed:7 April 2020)

· Take time to listen- make sure that you give children time to express themselves, with your full attention. Use open-ended questions to help the child to express themselves, for example what did you see or hear? How do you feel? Do you have any questions? Use active listening skills (this means giving full attention to the child, commenting on what the child is saying and making sure your body language shows you are interested, for example by making eye contact, facing the child, nodding and looking interested in what they are saying).

· General events-talk about how the event happened in an age appropriate way.

· Specific events-discuss the event and what happened in an age appropriate way. If the child asks questions, answer them honestly but without sharing too much scary information.

· Personal events-discuss the events, feelings and emotions. This may be very emotional for the child and time should be set aside for the child to share feelings.

· Talking and play method -in the talking and play method some activities may be useful to help the child to communicate what he or she has experienced and gives you the opportunity to remind the child that it is absolutely fine to feel the way they do. It may also be useful to allow the child time to reflect, with little interaction about the event. If a child is not ready to talk about the situation, allow them time to open up, tell them that you are always available to talk to them. If a child does approach you to talk about the event, make time to listen and stop what you are doing, nothing is more important than the child’s well-being. The use of photos or props may aid a child’s communication about the event. Puppets may assist the child to share their thoughts and feelings, or dressing up clothes can be used in role-play activities, which also makes it less threatening and can be an opportunity moving forward to educate children about keeping safe. Play can also be a good distraction from challenging times and can help to relieve pent up energy.

· Writing to the feelings fairy- children may be supported to share their emotions by ‘writing’ a letter to a fairy. For small children this can be a drawing of a sad or angry face. Encourage the child to ‘mark-make’ and explain to you what the letter says before leaving it in a ‘special’ place for the fairy to collect it. When the child has left the setting or gone to bed, you can replace the letter with a note from the fairy explaining that it is okay to feel sad or angry etc and leave a little picture of the fairy and some fairy dust (glitter) for the child to find and share with you. This can create a safe place for the child to share how they are feeling.

· Create a ‘My feelings’ wall or tree- where a child can select from a variety of facial expressions, share with you why they have chosen this face and put it on the feelings wall or tree next to their names. Again, this can create a safe place for the child to share how they are feeling.

· Drawing Method- encourage the child to draw as a way of ‘expressing’ themselves, this can be via any type of creative play, for example singing, dancing, drawing, painting and modelling. This gives you the opportunity to remind the child that it is okay to feel the way they do and gives you the opportunity to discuss feelings and listen to the child tell you about their drawing or creation. Emphasis should be put on expressing feelings or sharing events rather than making something, but follow the child’s lead and do these sorts of activities when the child is ready or showing signs that they are trying to express themselves.

· Role model- model positive coping strategies yourself. Do this by allowing private time for yourself to deal with your own emotions, so that you have the resources to support the child. If you do have moments of distress in front of the child, this is not necessarily negative. It is important to explain to the child that you may be feeling sad right now, but you have ways to make yourself feel better soon and that you are always there for the child. Children need to be helped to feel empowered and resilient after a difficult or traumatic event. You can help the child with this by encouraging them to think about how other people may be feeling or how brave some people have been. You can encourage the child to make a card or draw a picture for other people effected by the event. Also, if the child sees you doing things for others, for example volunteering to help neighbours or others in the community this can help children feel empowered, and it also helps to bring something positive to the situation.

Lastly, remember it is completely normal for a child’s behaviour to change in response to a challenging situation, crisis or trauma. However, if the signs and symptoms of stress go on for an extended period of time, with little improvement, it is a good idea for parents to speak to their GP and early years educators should contact other professionals for advice and guidance.

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