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Therapy support following disasters

Rachel Swanick, senior therapist at Chroma, on helping children come to terms with traumatic and upsetting events.



As a resident of Manchester, I was deeply affected by the bombing that happened at Manchester Arena in 2017.

I had attended concerts there and had even lived a five-minute walk from the venue for many years.

Since 9/11, the number of attacks like the Manchester event has increased as the world adjusts to modern times and civil unrest, and with the very recent attacks in Sri Lanka, more and more people are being directly affected by this seemingly unjust terror.

At the time of the Manchester bombing, I was working with an anxious 10-year-old girl, Abby, who had been adopted.

Abby struggled with the unpredictability of a ‘normal’ daily life, carrying her beloved snow leopard soft toy everywhere in a bid to feel safe. After the Manchester bombing, her mum contacted me to say that Abby had been very upset by the images she had seen and could I work with her on this. I was carrying my own pain about this event and I wasn’t sure how I could talk about this in order to help Abby feel safe.

Our natural human capacity for empathy becomes enhanced when you work therapeutically – or in a caring role – with vulnerable people. You contemplate the wider network of affect that disastrous events have on those involved, society and the world in general.

Being responsible for the positive wellbeing of someone, in work or in your family, often shines a different light on dramatic events as you think about the effect it could have them… on you. Protecting children from actual, physical danger is a natural instinct and this extends to the danger of emotional pain.

So how did I speak to Abby about what had happened and how can we do this with our own children, or in the therapy room? Here, I have compiled some suggestions to help with this.

  • Keep it simple. Describing the event in general terms to a child is very useful. For example, “someone had gun and lots of people were hurt”. Using facts to break down the emotion whilst not complicating the event with language will help children think about the event within the context of their own experience.
  • Acknowledge Emotions. Allow your child to talk about how they feel and help them to verbalise their emotions without ‘predicting’ them (your child may not feel anything negative as the event may be too far out of their experiences and this is fine, too). Spend ten minutes each day doing a quiet activity and offer them the chance to talk about their worries.
  • Model your Behaviours. Your child will learn the most from how you recognise and deal with your feelings. If you can talk (again simply) about how you feel and offer examples of how you manage your emotions, your child will feel safe to express themselves whilst developing their own coping methods.
  • Manage the Media. Of course, it would be impossible to shield your child completely from the effects of the media, and there are some arguments as to why this may be just as bad as too much exposure. However, as the adult, you can help the child feel safe by managing their access to photographs, news stories and opinions. This may mean watching the news after the child’s bedtime, checking the internet access of any electronic devices they may be using or asking other adults to be careful about what they say in front your child.
  • It’s not an exact science. Speaking to your child about disasters does not follow a set conversational route. It’s ok to not explain everything or to admit that you don’t know why someone bombed a school. Use the language that is familiar to your family and allow time for questions.
  • Listen and Reassure. Listening to your child without overwhelming them with more words is a great way to connect and help your child find their voice. Once they have finished speaking, remind them of all of the positive things in their own life and how safe they are right here and now.

If you or your child suffers from long term distress from any traumatic event, it could be worth trying some creative therapy, which focuses on the nonverbal elements of communication in a safe place. You can also try activities at home such as:

  • Worry Dolls– put your worries in the doll and put her in the box,
  • a Positive Pot– each day, write something lovely that has happened on a post-it and pop it in a pot. Read them back every few months or when your child is feeling sad,
  • or having Worry Time– a ten minutes slot each day where you can write down all of your worries.

As for Abby, we used music to help us through the hurt of the bombing.  At first, I talked to her about what had happened and admitted that I felt sad, like she was feeling. I listened to Abby’s questions, acknowledging the difficult moral dilemmas and when I did not know the answers.

Abby also composed a song about her worries and fears and left the song with me each week so that I could keep it safe. We sang it every week for a while and then it changed. Abby composed a new song about her friends and their new favourite game. One of my most comforting thoughts is always, “this too will pass”.



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