Something Bad Happened

A timely review of a book by Dawn Huebner PhD, that can help parents during COVID-19

I read Something Bad Happened after Professor Jim McManus recommended it as a tool to help parents talk to children about big events that happen in a helpful way. It is a great read, and when I was reading it, I was imagining issues like terrorism, the recent bushfires in Australia or other natural/man made disasters. This was in January, just before the current crisis took hold. Little did I know that just around the corner, the contents would be more useful than ever.

Talking helps! When our brains are in ‘fight or flight’ mode, it is important to validate the emotions we are all feeling

What is the book? 

It’s written by Dawn Huebner, a clinical psychologist, who specialises in supporting anxious children and their parents and the reason it is so useful is that it is not specifically about one issue. It doesn’t deal with terrorism or earthquakes specifically. It deals with the emotion underneath ‘big events’ in a generic sense, but provides adaptive and useful tools for trusted adults to sensitively navigate these big events with children. I am going to highlight some of the key advantages of this approach and some useful take-aways to help parents and carers, but ideally, reading the book is my advice! 

Overview of the message from Something Bad Happened?

  • It provides clear step by step guidance to gently and safely navigate the issues surrounding the bad thing.
  • Allows parents to be aware of how they themselves are feeling and responding to what is going on: Children do as we do, not just as we say. ‘Change in behaviour’ is a form of communicating how you are feeling as much as it is when you notice that a child has changed the way they are behaving.
  • Ensure that the child is not alone in navigating the complexity of the situation. Thinking it through with a child simply and clearly can also help adults make sense of what they think and what matters to them too.
  • It is important not to simply hide children from what is going on, but to use the guidance in the book to go on a journey with them and encourage them to talk and ask questions throughout.

 

Understanding the situation

  • Talking helps! When our brains are in ‘fight or flight’ mode, it is important to validate the emotions we are all feeling by naming them using simple, clear language, and importantly, not holding it all in.
  • Talking about the things that make us feel good and making time for them is important
  • Drawing rather than using words provides a means for children to express what they feel and understand that they don’t have to know exactly what to say to adults to explain what they feel. We all struggle to use dialogue sometimes.
  • Consciously drawing attention to the fact that not all information is true or accurate in the news is important in developing a more critical mind for children and adults.
  • Noting the facts like how far away the disaster happened, chances/likelihood of them personally getting hurt, reminding how big the world is, and how many people are working on keeping them safe is promoting rational thinking. This is one of the first times in the past few decades that the ‘bad thing’ is so close, but this remains very useful advice for this and other crises.

Things parents can do

  • Get involved in ‘civic stewardship’ and ‘community building’: Channelling attention into positive action makes us feel empowered.
  • Learn with their children how to practice ‘mindfulness’: This helps children (and adults!) self-regulate emotions, taking time to appreciate the situation and support around you. Parents need to give space and permission for this to happen, this book helps with that.
  • Highlight the importance of self-care: Understanding what makes you feel good and doing things that keep us healthy and strong is very important.
  • Telling the child that these times pass: It can be difficult for children to see past whatever is going on, not seeing an end point. However, we can relay stories of other similar issues that came and went. They feel big and feel never-ending at the time, but soon become a memory when normality (whatever that means) resumes.
  • Teaching the child about all the ‘big heart problem solvers’: Stories of people doing things for others inspire others. The NHS, social care and other essential workers, Captain Tom Moore and others like him capture the country’s imagination and inspire action. It is a reminder that very smart and caring people are working hard to protect us all, particularly vulnerable people.

Summary

This book is worth reading as a parent, social worker or anyone working with children. I wanted to thank Jim McManus for recommending it and Shaunagh Craig for sending some thoughts on the content. 

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