Making Sense of a Crisis – For Grown-ups and Kids

By Liz Buchanan

From where I sit in Arlington, MA, hundreds of thousands of people just a few miles away are in lockdown mode and SWAT teams are all over the TV, searching out a 19-year old who allegedly set off a bomb at the Marathon. One friend posted on Facebook, “Why does life suddenly look like a Batman movie?”

How do we process this? And how do those of us with children in our lives help them deal with what we’re all facing?  It’s not always possible to limit their exposure to what’s happening, though we can certainly try.

We need to find ways to overcome our own feelings of terror and helplessness, and to comprehend a world where it seems evil could be lurking around every corner.  It might sound like a cliché, but we need to be brave and trust that it will get better – even people in far more dangerous places in the world do that.  And then we need to help our children understand that, too.

I work with hundreds of children personally every week as an early childhood music specialist, both in the suburbs and in some of the tougher neighborhoods in Boston.  All of these children now find themselves in a world where bombs went off at one of Boston’s most beloved sports events, where kids and families were everywhere and an 8-year-old was one of three people killed. Just a few months ago, a disturbed gunman entered a school in a pristine suburban community, taking the lives of 20 young children and some of their teachers and their principal.

Suddenly preschools in the most “safe” communities are in the same mode as the schools and child-care facilities in rougher parts of Boston. Locks secure the doors; you have to buzz or enter a combination to get in.

We have to figure out ways to help our kids make sense of the situation. A good place to start is with hugs. I’ve noticed that in the urban settings where I work – especially at the sites that serve children in the homeless system – the children really love hugs.  Physical comfort and safe touch from adults is very important in giving children a sense of well-being and grounding in the world, especially these kids who’ve already been touched by trauma and disruption in their own young lives.

Keeping the semblance of “normal” life – playing, having snacks, telling jokes, laughing and reading books – is a good thing for kids (and grown-ups) in a time of crisis.  It’s good to let off some steam and feel the reassurance that sometime soon, things will return to normal.

But even as things settle down, children need to process all the emotions that have been stirred up.  For older kids, “talking it out” is helpful.  For the younger ones – the kids I work with are mostly 7 and under – the processing goes on not just through talk, but through action, through play.

Young children comprehend the world not just in a literal way, but through imagination and fantasy. They live in a world where there’s a possibility of magic. They understand evil not just as a bad person with a gun, but as a witch or ghost or monster.  A good person isn’t just a fireman or a cop or a parent, it could be a fairy or princess or superhero.

Liz Buchanan shares music with students in South Boston.
Liz Buchanan shares music with students in South Boston.

Some of the songs I sing frequently with kids help them play out basic conflicts of good and evil with fantasy characters.  In the past few years, one of the most popular songs in my repertoire is “The Royal Children.”  I adapted this song, with help from fellow children’s musicians, from a traditional song that tells the Sleeping Beauty story, and invites children to act out the story to music.

In my version of the song, some of the kids play “royal children” who find their castle under threat by evil witches and wizards.  The evil ones cast a spell on the children and put them to sleep for a hundred years.  Over the years, the castle is threatened by dragons, but brave knights help banish the fiery creatures.  At the end of the hundred years, the children are saved by gentle, magical unicorns.

The kids act out the story with colorful scarves, and in the end of the song, everyone, even the “evil” characters, gets to toss their scarves in the air and live happily ever after.

I got a note recently from a preschool director about a boy who told his mom he was excited to be a “knight” and listens to the song regularly.  These young children understand that there is both good and evil in the world.

I sing other fun songs, too, that are – in a playful way – about facing up to evil.  In my Billy Goats Gruff song, a brave goat stands down the menacing troll (in my song, the troll runs away, rather than meeting his doom).  In my “Five Little Mice” song, four mice get captured by a cat, but the fifth mouse finally declares to the cat, “You great big bully, go away!” The kids love singing along with that line.

That’s the kind of world I want the kids to understand. It’s a world where evil exists, but we are brave enough and good enough to overcome it.

Liz Buchanan, MFA, M.Ed. is President of The Children’s Music Network. Her new album – with songs mentioned in this column – is called “Once Upon A Tune” and is available through her web page.  The Children’s Music Network’s “Peace Resources” pages contain many useful songs for helping children of all ages deal with violence, trauma and other troubling situations.

9 comments

  1. Thanks for reminding us about the power of story!
    Here’s something else you can do for your children – hold their feet! There is a powerful fear release point just between the two little pads on the ball of the foot that is very powerful (don’t worry about the exact spot, intention is everything!) You can do both feet or one at a time. Simply put your thumbs on that spot (K1, the first point on the kidney meridian) and hold it very lightly – as lightly as if you were taking a pulse (which you are). At first, you may feel nothing, but after awhile, you may start to feel a pulse in one or both feet. This means that the whole body/mind battery is getting recharged. Just hold until the pulse stops. You can sing while you hold. Twinkle twinkle is a big favorite; any song that is familiar and safe is good.
    Even if you don’t feel anything in the feet,just doing it, with the intention of release, will create the desired calm.
    You can also hold your own feet! (I’ve been holding mine all day, on and off!)

  2. Thanks for giving an eloquent voice to both our fears and our power as children’s musicians and music educators, and all adults.

  3. Keep up all the great work, Liz! Thank you for the beautiful and caring article.

  4. Thank you Liz; our thoughts and prayers have been with Boston since the beginning of this horrible event, along with Newtown and all the other terrible tragedies since the fall. The magnitude and frequency with which these crises have been occurring must make children feel particularly anxious and vulnerable as it does to adults, but maybe more so because they don’t understand so many things yet. So aren’t we lucky to have a treasure trove of music in our “comfort tool box,” plus access to so many children, so we are in great position to help heal.

    Unfortunately in my area (Long Island) touching children we work with in the schools is a big no-no; no hugs, certainly no feet (thanks Eve; interesting treatment I’ll try on myself!). Isn’t it a sad commentary on our society that 1. these horrible events happen at all and 2. hugging a child is verboten???

  5. Thanks Liz
    Your article was helpful and important.

  6. Thanks, Liz, for a thoughtful and timely article. As I was reading, I remembered the verse that Fred Small wrote to his song “I Want a Hug” which originally was a song for adults, about a therapist who was reprimanded because he dared to hug his clients.
    This verse enabled the song to be sung with children, and it goes “When I was a little bitty baby child, my mama would hold me tight. My papa would come and pick me up when I got scared at night. The years have passed, I’ve grown so fast, and mostly I feel strong, but timid or bold, I’m never too old to sing this cozy song.” Then the chorus: “I want a hug when we say hello, I want a hug when it’s time to go, I want a hug ’cause I want you to know I’m awfully fond of you…..” Seems as though, in places such as Patricia describes where hugging is verbotem, one could at least sing about it….

  7. One of my songbirds is now attending Darmouth. Rach facebooked me the other day and said “Lessia, I’ve been listening to our song “Enough” over and over lately and just wanted you to know that it’s really helping me sort out my feelings. The lyrics reflect exactly what happened here, don’t you think? I miss you!”

    Needless to say, I was extremely touched to know my lyrics were helping her make sense of things.

    I just stumbled upon this site and am delighted to find such intelligence and thoughtfulness attached to *giant drum roll* fun melodies! As I mostly work with kids fourth grade through junior high, I may not exactly fit the criteria to fit in here. But I just had to write and say hello and I love what you wrote! And actually, I do have a few songs for younger kids recorded for BP. One is all about Moses standing up to the pharaoh suggesting he get over himself and not to be such a bully. Moses actually tells the pharaoh “Be nice!” haha It’s been super popular with kids.

    You are so right. Empowerment and healing are so magical when mixed with music. I can’t wait to hear yours 🙂 — Lessia Bonn

    1. Thank you, Lessia! Glad you have found our site! I would love to hear your music, too. – Liz

  8. Hi, Liz. Thank you for your eloquent insights and reminders of what helps all of us and especially the youngest among us get through unthinkable tragedy. I love the way you use role play, drama and dance in combination with music to help every kind of learner and every child find his and her way through. I will share your post now at the Guitars in the Classroom facebook page so others can gain from your insight and practice. We can also post it as a hosted blog at the website if you wish, and I’d like to. Thank you for the work you continue to do in the Boston area. ~Jess

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