A tragic event most commonly leaves us adults feeling confused, sad, angry and fearful. And if we cannot make sense of a tragedy or if our fears have been triggered, then imagine how children feel. If adults feel fearful after tragedy or its the aftermath, then how do we keep our children feeling safe?
With my background in the expressive arts and folklore, I've worked with traumatized children in a variety of settings. After receiving questions from a few parents and clients this past week, I decided to compile a quick list of the creative activities that I most commonly utilize. These activities have two main objectives:
1.) To make sure the child feels safe enough to open up and talk about anything with a parent or an adult
2.) To make sure the child knows that the parent or the adult will do everything possible to keep him or her safe in this world
While we may not always have the power to control what happens in the world around us, we do have the power to give children constructive tools to help them deal with the problems within the world as well as to show children that the world is still BRIGHT HAPPY and MAGICAL.
Before I list my activities, I would like to mention the importance of not creating a fearful environment for children. Children are extremely sensitive to the news and to adult reactions. If adults are walking around saying "How could this happen?" or "What an absolute tragedy" or if adults are fixating on the television, then this is creating a fearful environment for children. Try limiting your own news intake and read this post about creating a positive environment. It's good to let children know that feeling scared or sad is perfectly acceptable as long as we offer some tools to cope with the feelings. Just make sure that our own fears are not creating a fearful environment and make sure that the environment is appropriate for a child's developmental stage.
Here is a list of creative activities to help children work through a tragedy:
1.) Creative Writing and Storytelling. Telling and writing stories are not only excellent outlets for emotion, but they also help children process a tragedy, even when their creative story may not seem like it's related to the event. For example, I often hear tales of superheros and children born with special powers after a tragedy occurs. Even if the characters aren't engaging with the tragedy itself, it is soothing for children to believe in the safety these legendary people offer the world and it is empowering for children to believe that they have special abilities in a world where they may feel powerless.
Let children create their own stories regardless of the themes that may arise--they are inserting their concerns and feelings into the story. If themes of violence or tragedy do occur, then play a mutual storytelling game where the child tells the story first, then you either tell, reenact or use puppets to retell a modified version of the story. Throw in fun and magical twists as well as positive tools or messages to address any issues that appeared in the first tale. (Keep messages simple, "I love you," "I will do everything to keep you safe," "There is so much good in this world," etc.)
2.) Art. A variety of art materials should always be available to children. Sometimes children don't want to talk about what they have seen or heard about a tragedy. Chalk, crayons, markers, colored pencils, paints, finger paints and clay are all excellent tools to help your child express their conscious and unconscious thoughts. When your child is finished, ask questions about their artwork and really listen to their answers as well as acknowledge their feelings. Try not to push them into talking, just ask a few questions and let them lead the conversation.
3.) Creative Play. Children often process the world around them by engaging in play. Encourage children to use their imaginations to explore situations and outcomes. Try not to correct them if violence or scary themes arise, just gently redirect them to more positive ideas and solutions for resolving their anger. (Remember, we want to encourage children to open up and talk, so if we scold them for violent thoughts, they are likely to keep their ideas to themselves.)
A sensory table can also be therapeutic for a child. Fill a container with brightly colored sand or Kool-aid dyed pasta shapes and allow your child to use his or her toys (miniature humans, animals, houses, trees) for creative play. Pay attention because the child most commonly will use the toys to represent their needs.
And finally, interacting with puppets or offering some stuffed animals for comfort and anger release are also great tools to inspire creative play. Here is a quick tutorial on how to make your own puppets:
4.) Go to an uplifting movie or to a storytelling event. After a tragedy (especially a tragedy that directly impacts a child), it may be difficult for children to believe that the world is a bright and happy place and that there is an infinite amount of positive experiences just waiting for them. Experiencing uplifting, inspiring or even just silly stories often shifts this negative outlook. I specifically write and perform my stories to not only make children smile and feel magical, but my stories also keep them feeling empowered, inspired and hopeful. Engaging in positive stories can be key to helping children cope with tragedy.
5.) Focus on the good. Take a trip around town looking for all of the hardworking and caring people in this world. You can even design a scavenger hunt for younger children and include things like a police car, a police person, a fire truck, a fire person, a paramedic, an ambulance, healthcare workers, a teacher, a trained guide dog, a school, etc. By showing a child that there are lots and lots of positive people who care for this world, you are offering him or her hope and reassurance.
I do hope that this post offers you some ideas to help create a brighter and happier world for the children around you. Please let me know if you have any questions or if you would like me to address a specific issue in a blog post.
Lots of love and an extra magical hug,