The Michael Rafferty murder trial taking place a few kilometers from my home has captured the heart of our city, province and nation. As I watch the news, a lump forms in my throat at the sight of Tory Stafford’s father. Gosh. To sit in the same court room with the man who allegedly murdered and sexually assaulted his 8 year old daughter and hearing once again the gruesome details of her final hours of life; I commend his strength. For Tory’s mother to reopen the brutal wounds of grief, in full view of an entire nation, I doubt I could be so brave. Certainly the strength and bravery needed as adults to face this impossibly senseless situation is incredible, but what of the children involved? How can Tory’s brother Daryn, her former classmates and ‘kids that lived down the street’ process this frightening violation of innocence. How do your children interpret the news they are seeing on TV?
A child’s ability to deal with a traumatic situation depends largely on the reactions of the adults in their life. As a child observes their parents, grandparents or teachers, they are highly sensitive to these influential adults reactions, often expressing their feelings in the same way the adult expressed. Worry, anxiety, hostility and tearfulness may be learned responses in a child unsure of how to interpret the trauma.
It’s helpful for adults to talk with the children in their life about their concerns, balancing it with explanations of how all involved can get through this together. Children should be invited to process what they are seeing, hearing and feeling, in an atmosphere of comfort and acceptance. When adults gently respond to fears, clarifying concerns, children experience relief from any misinterpretations they have made.
In his article ‘Children and Trauma’, John Levington of International Counselling Ministries made these suggestions for helping children deal with crisis.
- Debrief children after a crisis to let them tell their story and to reveal any wrong assumptions, fears, or personal blaming they may be experiencing. After listening, help reframe the crisis for children without implying judgment.
- Help children learn to use words that express their feelings, such as sad, scared, angry, or happy. Remember you as an adult may have also been affected by this event so be sure the words fit the children’s feelings and not yours.
- Re-establish a sense of order and routine. A regular schedule helps recreate a sense of security for children.
- Plan and carry out activities that will calm the children. Encourage young children to use art (drawing, painting, clay modeling, and collage) to express their emotions.
- Reassure children that the event is being dealt with appropriately—people getting medical attention, police responding to the criminals, buildings being cleaned up or repaired, and support being offered to those affected by the trauma.
- Read stories about crisis situations and how God provided for those involved.
- Help children care for those affected by the crisis through writing letters, sending pictures, baking food, or otherwise helping in a way that fits with their abilities. Actively doing something to help others refocuses children’s thoughts or emotions in healthy ways without minimizing them.
- Lengthening story telling or cuddling at bedtime may be necessary the first few nights after a trauma.
- Remind children that they have support of people throughout the world. Share letters or newspaper articles from others who are empathizing with them and praying for them. This will reassure them that others care about them, making them feel less alone and vulnerable.
- Together discuss ways God evidenced care in this trauma and thank Him for his provision.
- Pray with the children regarding their fears. Help them with memorization of Bible verses regarding fear.
- Help children work through their normal questions regarding why God didn’t protect them from this trauma. Use this difficult situation to teach about God’s sovereignty, man’s free will, and the work of evil in the world.