Supporting Young Children in the Face of Scary Times

Combat tough messages with empathy

Denise Madzik and Nancy Fogel,

I recently attended a minor league baseball game and looked to the outfield at the flag flying half-staff. I was very aware of the reason why. National news described the event in very specific detail the week before. This was a somber reminder of another event involving either violence or natural disaster that we, as adults stop, pause and attempt to process on so many levels. 

The media (television, internet, radio and print) provides us with valuable (and sometimes not so valuable) information about the world around us. Some people believe that young children don't know what's going on, but I beg to differ. As an early childhood educator, I often wonder how young children process the information they see and hear, along with the feelings they have when they see the adults around them expressing concern and worry, through facial expressions and the tones of their voices. We know that children can sense this worry and it can be scary for children to realize that adults are scared. Can the exposure to violence through media or even adult conversations lead to what is now being referred to as secondary trauma (indirect exposure to a traumatic event) or vicarious trauma (a response to the exposure to the pain of others)? (Best Start Resource Center, 2012).

The news presented through various forms of media can be confusing to a young child. The same video can be shown repeatedly even during different times of the day, as if each showing was a different event. Children can become anxious and confused since they don't understand replays, close-ups and camera angles. Any danger seems close to children because it takes place on the television, computer or smart phone in their own home. Children can't tell the difference between what's close and far away, what's real and what's pretend, or what's new and what's re-run. Additionally, young children are drawn to close-ups of faces, particularly if that person is expressing strong feelings. (Fred Rogers Company, 2018)

"Who will take care of me?" According to the Fred Rogers Company (2018), young children are depending on adults for their survival and security. Children need to hear a very clear message from their family, their educators, and from their community that we are all doing all we can to take care of them and keep them safe in any scary time. Children also need to know that as adults who care so very deeply for them, they can always talk with us about anything and we will listen and respond with open ears and open hearts. (Fred Rogers Company, 2018)



Fred Rogers (otherwise known as Mr. Rogers), the embodiment of a good neighbor, is famously quoted as saying,  "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world." (Fred Rogers Company, 2018)

Mr. Rogers always emphasized the importance of empathizing with young children and helping them find constructive things to do with their feelings. "This way, we'll be giving them useful tools that will serve them all their life, and help them become the worlds' future peacemakers - the world's future helpers." (Buckleitner, 2014)

According to Zero to Three (2017) and Parlaikain and MacLaughlin (2018), here are some strategies for adults who care for children to consider in times of tragedy:

  • Limit access to media images and discussions about frightening events.
  • Stay calm when answering questions about scary news events, as hard as that may be.
  • Answer children's questions using simple language that they understand, based on his or her age and stage of development.
  • Get support for yourself so you can manage your own emotions.
  • Create an environment of safety and consistency.
  • Harness the power of positive touch. Sometimes we all just need a hug.
  • Build children up, focusing on the child's strengths and abilities.
  • Tell stories of the child's family and/or community that communicate strength, resilience, courage, humor and intelligence.
  • Make time for laughter and fun.

Be honest with young children, especially when the inevitable questions of "why?" and "is this going to happen in my school, neighborhood, house?" Adults don't have all the answers but this is a time to talk about what we do to plan "just in case." Understanding that adults are doing what they can do to keep them safe and recognizing their role can be comforting and empowering to even the youngest child. In the classroom this means explaining the importance of practicing drill procedures but, even at home, families can develop a plan for weather emergencies and practice fire drills. We may never understand exactly why or be able to predict exactly where the next incident will be but we can be proactive making our children, and ourselves, feel less helpless.

Please see the following excellent resources for guidance on how to help children deal with exposure to violence, including how to support young children's social / emotional development, signs to look for when a child is experiencing trauma, and the concept of bibliotherapy (storytelling or reading of specific texts with the purpose of healing).

1. Best Start Resource Centre. (2012). When Compassion Hurts: Burnout, Vicarious Trauma and Secondary Trauma in Prenatal and Early Childhood Service Providers. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: author

2. Buckleitner, Warren.  (October 2014).  Protecting children from extreme screen violence.    

3. Fred Rogers Company.  (2018). Tragic Events

4.  National Association for the Education of Young Children.  (2018). Coping with violence.    

5. Parlakian, Rebecca and MacLaughlin, Sarah S.  (2018). Limiting the toxic effects of trauma when tragedy strikes.  

6. Pica, Rae.  (2018). School shootings: What does early childhood have to do with them?   

7. Zero to Three.  (August 2017). Racism and violence: Using your power as a parent to support children aged two to five.  

Northampton Community College offers many trainings! In June, we have online trainings in connecting with families which can help you focus in on helping your families during stressful times! To see even more trainings, go hereAll NCC contracted trainings, which can be worth PA Registry clock hours, ACT48 (not infant based), and CEU's, can also be handled by NCC; who will take care of the registration issues when you contract with us! Call us to help plan your training year (610) 332-6087 or email us at education@northampton.edu.

Coordinator, Denise Madzik, and Toddler Teacher, Nancy Fogel, both work at the Reibman Hall Children's Center on Bethlehem Campus. They stress the importance of building a community of early childhood leaders who are supported and prepared to create and sustain strong, high quality programs for children and families.