In times of crisis, parents and caregivers play a vital role in protecting children and helping them cope. But even providing the simplest acts of care to a child in an emergency can be a challenge. The advice is exactly what you might imagine: If possible, the parent or a close guardian should be by their side.
Research has shown that that kind of reassuring presence can minimize post-traumatic issues later in life. In their 1943 book War and Children, psychoanalysts Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham studied preschool children at three nurseries in London who were orphaned or evacuated during World War II. They found that during traumatic events, the presence of a caregiver who paid attention to a child and attended to their needs was a key source of stability.
If an attack, such as a bombing, occurs "when small children are in the care either of their own mother or a familiar mother substitute, they do not seem to be particularly affected by them [in the long run]. Their experience remains an accident, in line with other accidents of childhood," write Freud and Burlingham in their book.
The consequences when parental protection falters
Without a parent or guardian to offer love and support, children can experience the kind of stress that often leads to serious mental health and development consequences. Conflict-related traumas can trigger "elevations in heart rate, breathing and stress hormones related to the fight or flight response. Repeat exposure to toxic stress in that way can affect the developing brain of children, and it has lifelong consequences for learning, behavior and health," says Theresa Betancourt, a professor at the Boston College School of Social Work and director of the Research Program on Children and Adversity.
Betancourt recommends UNICEF's guidance for parents on how to talk to children about conflict and war. Developed in conjunction with mental health experts and child psychologists, the advice includes making sure to ask children how they feel, not minimizing or dismissing their concerns and gently talking to children about what is happening.