Children's capacity to feel sorrow is sometimes underestimated - partly because children express themselves differently to adults, and partly because the tendency to protect children is very strong in our culture.
Symptoms of children in crisis
- Fear of the dark
- Exaggerated good behaviour
- Sleep problems
- Nightmarish dreams
- Abandonment anxiety
- Stomach pains
- Sudden incontinence
- Unprovoked weeping
Children need to be included
Children cannot, nor should they, be excluded, regardless of whether you are dealing with an accident, death or divorce. They will sense that something is wrong, and by remaining silent or explaining things away, we leave children alone with their anxious thoughts, imaginings and unanswered questions and all the uncertainty and insecurity that creates.
Children's reactions naturally depend on their age, maturity and the emotional significance of the crisis for them.
Without information, everything is left to the child's imagination, which often creates something worse than the reality.
These imaginings can give rise to a feeling of anxiety and terror that can leave lasting traces in the form of increased physical or mental fragility.
Read more about how to help children in crisis.
Help for children is first and foremost based on open and truthful information about what happened, how it could happen and why.
Allow the child to react
Children react differently. Some react with tears and protests, suspicion or denial while others are almost apathetic, as if they have not heard what was said. These reactions are all natural and the individual child's way of protecting itself from the painful knowledge.
It is a good idea for parents to inform and prepare the child but if this is not possible then choose someone that the child trusts.
Children often prefer to receive information a little at a time, so you should prepare for a series of small conversations rather than one long one.
You should listen seriously to the child's questions, answer them truthfully and accept and respect the child's feelings.
Children need to feel that they can come back at any time with questions and that they will get honest answers. If there is no answer, you must say so. Children can also understand this.
If you have difficulty talking to the child about it there are many good books for both children and adults that can support you in this difficult conversation.
Accidents and disasters
Research indicates that the younger a child is the greater the risk that they will be traumatised in the event of serious accidents and disasters.
It may be connected to the fact that the younger the child, the more incomplete their understanding of the world and therefore severe experiences will mark the child's foundational feelings of trust, safety and stability.
The child will need support to express and rebuild these relations.
Criminal actions directed against the child or someone the child knows, will similarly affect the child's foundational feelings of trust, safety and stability.
The child is in a position to react to the concrete action and disruption that the action creates but also to the reaction of their surroundings to the action and any breach of the norm.
In such situations the child needs adults around who can assist the child to distinguish between their own reactions and any contagious feelings and reactions from parents, siblings and other significant figures in the child's circle.
Illness and death
Always prepare the child for what they will encounter at the hospital, by the deathbed, in church or at a funeral. Tell them, for example, that the grown-ups may be sad too and that many will cry.
Naturally, children must not be forced to take part but they should be encouraged and be allowed to if they want.
Even small children can take part. It will mean something when they are older and the adults tell them, "You were there and you said goodbye".
Allow children to see the deceased
In most cases it is best to give children the option of seeing the deceased and also attending the funeral, but they should not feel pressured to do so.
There may, however, be situations where we must advise against allowing children to view the dead person. For example, if death was caused by severe burns or if the deceased was found long after death or in the case of traffic accidents.
In cases of illness, there is time to prepare children for what will happen. Children can visit the person in hospital.
In this way, they can be prepared for death and they should be given the option of seeing the deceased afterwards.
Many children are pleased if they can give the deceased a small farewell gift to be placed in the coffin. Perhaps a flower, a letter, a drawing or something else.
The people closest to a child may be so despairing themselves that they are unable to help and support the child as well.
Then it is important and right to ask others for help.
Depending on the accident's scope and significance for parents and children, it may be appropriate to seek professional help for a child.
This applies if a child's reactions are very extreme or prolonged. Therapy may consist of conversational, drawing or play therapy depending on the child's age.
Contact your own doctor if you are in doubt whether your child needs additional help.
Read more about support in crises.