When talking to children, it is important to provide information and support that is appropriate to the child’s age and developmental level. During childhood, there are different developmental tasks the child are supposed to master at certain age levels. Learning language is essential in preschool years, for instance. Solving these tasks is important for the child’s development, it increases self-confidence and provides a sense of achievement. By supporting coping of developmental tasks, adults can promote children’s natural development. Be concrete and ensure that your language fits the child’s ability to understand themselves in relation to the situation and other people (mentalizing capacity):
Crisis reactions in infants are influenced by the child’s temper, ability to self-regulate, and the quality of the relationship to the regulating other, i.e. parents, day-care personnel etc. The developmental tasks of infancy involve attachment, imitation, exploration and developing trust in other people. The close caregivers’ response to the child’s reactions is central for solving the developmental tasks in the age group 0-2 years.
Children need sensitive and secure caregivers that can calm them when needed and assist them when they are ready for exploring their world. A secure and predictable attachment to parents/guardians is a prerequisite for the child to be able to explore its surroundings. After a traumatic event, it is natural for the parents to be very protective of their child, which can make it challenging for them to support the child’s exploration.
Crisis reactions in the toddler/preschool years are influenced by the child’s independence and social adjustment, as well as the quality of care. Developmental tasks central for 2-6-year-olds involve coping, feeling in control, developing self-regulation, thinking about self and others (mentalization) and imaginative play. It is important that caregivers allow children to play the incident over several times if they want to. Children, who over time cannot move on and are stereotypically repeating parts of the incident in their play, may need help from an adult to create a different end to the story. The adult can pose open-ended questions such as “What would have happened if you were Superman?”
Information for children this age should be concrete. Play and figures can be used to aid explanation. Children often process crises by “playing” the incident. When they reach age 5-6, they may be more able to talk about the incident, their role and the role of others. Use toys and symbols to support the conversation. For example, a teddy bear could be the narrator and Lego figures could be the different participants. The adult and the child can take turns holding the teddy bear, explaining what is happening and what the Lego figures are thinking and feeling in the situation.
Crisis reactions in this age group are influenced by the child’s opportunity for coping and by the quality of the support systems within and around the family. Developmental tasks in this age include friendship, identification with peers, learning and problem solving. Conversations with children can be about concrete events and how they perceive their own and other’s thoughts and feelings during and after the event. Use hypothetical questions to explore what the child would wish to be different in the situation, giving them a more active and problem-solving role. The support person can for example ask: “If you had a magic wand, what would you have changed?”
Children who experience things they cannot fully understand can create their own explanations, for example assuming guilt for why the incident happened. This is called magical thinking. A child can for example think that mum’s car crashed because he or she said has said something mean to her without saying sorry.
Visual models, such as Siegel’s Hand Model of the Brain, can help children understand the changes that happen in body, mind and emotions following a crisis. Such models can help them understand why it is easy to say or do things they wouldn’t otherwise have said or done.
Crisis reactions in adolescents are influenced by whether they feel in charge of their lives (“locus of control”), how independent they are, and by the quality of their close friendships. Developmental tasks in this age involve developing an identity, creating close and intimate relationships, becoming more morally conscious, detaching from parents and planning their future. Parents are still very important in the adolescents’ life, even though they are beginning to be more independent. During a crisis, some adolescents can become very dependent on their parents while others can try to be independent too early. Parental counselling can address this – how to help and protect adolescents while at the same time supporting their natural need for independence?
It is important to mention that major decisions should not be made in a time of acute crisis. Provide information about common crisis reactions, such as increased arousal, and explain who these reactions can lead to black-and-white thinking and hasty decisions. Inform the adolescents that their reactions following the incident will influence both how they think and feel about their current situation, and how they think and feel about the incident itself. Counselling can help them sort between what the objective situation is and what are their thoughts and emotions. This may enable them to explore different ways of understanding the incident and their reactions to it. Support the adolescents’ natural need for independence by encouraging them to have their own initiatives and strategies for coping.
Friends are very important in this age group. However, adolescents may feel unsecure of how much about the incident and their emotions they can share with friends. They can be concerned about “using up” their friends if they overshare. These are topics that could be discussed in both individual and group counselling sessions at school or with friends. Adolescents like to identify with peers of the same age. Group sessions with other adolescents with similar experiences can therefore be helpful.