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In a Crisis, Parents Must Be There, Be Aware for Their Children

Family hugging after crisis

When a crisis or troubling event occurs, there is often questions about the need for psychiatric counseling for kids who might be upset or anxious.

While such counseling can be valuable, not every child who experiences a crisis or troubling event needs it. Humans are hardwired to survive emotional trauma, and everyone – including teenagers – has natural, "built-in" coping mechanisms that can help them deal with the challenges of such events.

This doesn't mean kids can go it alone. Parents must take the lead role in supporting their children, promoting the healing process and encouraging normalcy.

The keys to parenting in a crisis or troubling event are being available to listen and giving kids the time and space they need to sort through and share what they're feeling, using those built-in coping mechanisms.

First, parents must understand that it is normal for their children to feel upset, sad, confused or scared and other strong emotions when something bad happens in the world, and to let their kids know it's okay to have those feelings. Parents should make sure their kids know they can talk to them anytime, but should not force or press the issue. Being available and supportive is the most important parenting advice in this situation.

One way to encourage children to talk about how they're feeling is to say a family prayer during dinner for those involved or directly impacted by the event. This is a wonderful, proactive way to remember the suffering others are experiencing and make it easier for a young person to open up and confide in their parents.

The days and weeks following a crisis or troubling event also are a time when family members should show affection and be kinder and gentler with each other. Surrounding a child with tender loving care and the "milk of human kindness" is exactly what is needed to begin the healing.

Parents also should encourage their children to maintain their regular activities and schedule. This means going to school, continuing involvement in academics, sports, music and church, and socializing with friends (talking on the phone, going to movies, shopping at the mall, hanging out).

Parents, teachers and friends are natural supports; they are often the most potent sources of comfort and assistance during a crisis or troubling event. That's why it's important for children to get back to the activities and people who are important to them.

Kids may put up some resistance because they feel too upset or anxious. But parents have a responsibility to support their kids and help them understand that these kinds of events are an unfortunate, unavoidable part of life and that it's okay to study, laugh, have fun and just be a kid.

Through all of this, parents should be vigilant and watchful, keeping their eyes and ears open for signals of deeper problems. These might include changes in eating or sleeping habits, not being able to return to normal activities or feeling overwhelmed with extra stress or worry. If parents notice these or other red flag behaviors continuing two weeks or longer after the event, they should seek professional help.

Monitoring and vigilance should continue long after the crisis or troubling event. It is normal for young people to still feel grief and sadness or to want to talk about the event for days or weeks after. As long as a child is functioning normally and hasn't had any problems getting back to their routine, this shouldn't be a cause for alarm.

A tragedy, crisis or disturbing event can affect each child and family differently, where some struggle more than others. Parents must provide the time, support, understanding and vigilance necessary for their children to cope, heal and move on.

Crisis Care Parenting Tips

  • Everyone – including teenagers – is hard-wired to recover from crises and troubling events and has "built-in" coping mechanisms.
  • It is normal for kids to feel upset, sad, confused or afraid after something bad happens; let your child know it's okay to have these feelings.
  • Always be available to talk and listen to your child, but don't force children to talk about their feelings.
  • Parents, friends and teachers are the best sources of support, caring and understanding.
  • Maintaining normal activities promotes coping and healing.
  • Give kids time and space to sort through their feelings.
  • Monitor kids and stay vigilant as the healing process continues, even days, weeks and months after the event.
  • If kids have problems maintaining their normal life, show unusual changes in their routines or give other signals they are struggling, seek professional help.

For additional advice, help and resources on parenting through a crisis or troubling event, contact the Boys Town National Hotline at 1-800-448-3000. Trained counselors are available 24/7.​