How to support your family during a crisis

5 min read   •   July 22, 2021
Jacqui Smit

What is a crisis?

Crises are pronounced adverse life events typically accompanied by some type of loss. A crisis can include a death or accident in the family, a parent losing their job, or violent crime. Sometimes, even good things – like a new marriage or a pregnancy – can feel like a crisis because of the associated stress and how these events change a person’s life.

How children react to a crisis

Children are very perceptive and will notice when there is something ‘wrong’ in the family. Depending on a child’s age, they may not be able to verbalise their feelings. Consequently, children may present with behaviours that are not standard for them. During a crisis, it is important to keep an eye out for behavioural oddities such as:

  • Aversions to stimuli that previously did not bother them
  • Disturbed sleep or nightmares
  • Diminished interest in school and other activities
  • Poor concentration
  • Age regression (acting younger than they are)

What parents can do for themselves

As the saying goes, you cannot pour from an empty cup: parents cannot help their children unless they help themselves. Here are some tips on how you, as a parent, can look after yourself during a time of crisis:

  • Focus on the most significant and pressing responsibilities. By concentrating on what is essential and paying less attention to less important things, you will not burn yourself out trying to ‘do it all’. Determine what you can and cannot control. By focusing on the things you can control, you will be able to reduce your stress.
  • Practise self-care. Although self-care is something we should always be practising, it is imperative during a crisis. Take an hour to read your favourite book, have a luxurious bath, or treat yourself to a delicious snack. While self-care might feel unnecessarily indulgent, it is crucial for helping you keep calm and to keep your stress in check.

Read more: Parental self-care

  • Make sure to reach out and connect with loved ones. Humans are inherently sociable creatures, and no man is an island. Keep in contact with friends and other family members, as they are a vital source of support during a crisis. Keep loved ones informed of the situation, and spend time with them when and where possible.
  • Respect that people deal with crises differently. Some people are more openly emotional than others; some find it more challenging to cope with stressful situations – be mindful of the different personalities in your family. Do not expect everyone to recover at the same rate, and remember that healing is not linear: there will be ups and downs. Be easy on yourself and your family.
  • Allow yourself to recognise and express your feelings. Ignoring them will not make them go away, and trying to repress your emotions will backfire in the long term. Give yourself the necessary time to grieve and heal. Acknowledging your fears and anxieties is good not only for your emotional wellbeing but also for your children’s wellbeing as they will see that it is okay and normal to have and talk about these feelings.

What parents can do for their children

Above all else, during a crisis, children need to feel safe and know that they have people in their life on whom they can rely. They will need reassurance, understanding, support, and acceptance. You can help do this for them by:

  • Talking openly about the situation with your child. Share accurate but age-appropriate information about the problem, do not keep them in the dark. Use simple language and avoid sugar-coated metaphors. Answer their questions but refrain from giving them details they do not need. If you do not know the answer to a question, be honest and let them know you will try to find out.

  • Being positive. While it is important to be honest and realistic, be optimistic and tell your children that you are dealing with the situation and expect things to get better. Reassure and encourage them, but do not make false promises.
  • Listening to children. Too often, parents brush off or invalidate their children’s concerns, but you must tune in to their feelings and take them seriously. Take time to ask them how they are feeling and if they would like to talk about their feelings. If they are non-verbal or unsure how to verbalise their feelings, encourage them to draw, write, or use toys to ‘tell a story.’

Read more: Supporting your child’s emotional intelligence development

  • Helping children socialise. As mentioned, parents need external support from loved ones, and so do children. Facilitate contact with people with whom you know your child likes spending time and feels comfortable, whether this is a best friend, an aunt, or anybody else!

Read more: You’ve got a friend in me

  • Spending extra time with children. Children might feel the need for extra attention from caregivers during a crisis, so be sure to give it to them if that is what they need. Do a fun activity together (like watching a family-friendly movie), or take some more time putting them to bed. Ask them what you can do for or with them that will make them feel better.

Most importantly, for both parents and children, try to stick to your routine as much as possible. Predictable routines help children feel safe, and giving them – and yourself – things to do will give all of you a feeling of control. Make sure you and your children eat well, exercise, and get plenty of rest, where possible.

Read more: New normal, new routine

If you are concerned about your wellbeing or that of a family member, seek professional help. A general practitioner can refer you to a psychologist or counsellor specialised in trauma and distress.