How to Talk About Traumatic Events With Kids
JUNE 1ST, 2022
As much as we want to protect our kids from experiencing bad things, we sometimes can’t. By age 16, more than ⅔ of children say they’ve experienced a traumatic event, and dramatic and scary scenes on the news and online are all too common. Trauma can seem random, and be hard to process for anyone experiencing it or witnessing it, including adults. Which is why learning how to talk about trauma with kids can be helpful.
What is trauma?
Trauma is defined by the American Psychological Association as “an emotional response to a terrible event. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.” The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration adds that the “harm can be physical or emotional, real or perceived, and it can threaten the child or someone close to him or her.”
Where to start?
Talking girls through a traumatic event can be difficult. But letting them know they are now safe, and talking through their grief and emotions can help them process the trauma in healthy and supportive ways. Talking to kids after they experience something terrible can help everyone cope with both the initial reaction of shock and denial and the longer term effects. The same is true for emotional reactions to terrible events that families have heard about or seen online/on tv, and haven’t experienced first-hand.
For girls that have experienced very serious traumatic events first-hand, scroll down for tips on finding mental health and other support from experts in your area.
Your child should first feel safe and calm
A traumatic event can be hard to process. Depending on the age of your little one, their brains process events differently. Extra hugs and more affection can be a good place to start. Child Mind Institute has a great resource for how to talk about trauma with kids based on their age. Communicating that they are safe right now is important to begin the conversation.
Safety is a basic need. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, safety is near the bottom of the pyramid. Just above food and clothing. When we feel safe, we can build on the comfort into healthy healing.
Keep your normal routine (as much as possible)
When trauma happens to someone in your family or community, it can ripple through everyone. Maintaining a routine can be extremely difficult. But children do thrive on routines, and they make their lives more predictable. And in turn, children are more able to feel safe because they understand what will come next.
According to the US Head Start program, kids who experience routines…
- Feel in control of their environment
- Feel safe, secure, and comfortable
- Know what is happening now and what comes next
- Know how to do an activity or task
- Engage in learning
If the trauma happened to the entire family, try keeping as much of a routine as possible. Simple things like mealtime and bedtime can be extremely comforting for young children. If it’s not possible to maintain the routine, try developing new ones, without the pressure for them to be perfect. Grace is important for yourself, as well.
Don’t assume your worry is their worry
Psychologists recommend that parents be the first to talk to kids about a traumatic event, before they learn about it from somewhere else. Be brief in your description of what happened and allow them to ask questions.
It’s OK to say “I don’t know.”
Adults may assume that kids share their concerns, but they might not be worrying about the same things. It’s important to let them share their feelings, before sharing your own.
Acknowledge their emotions and feelings
Many caregivers default to protecting our children. This includes saying things like “everything is OK,” or “there’s nothing to worry about.” It’s important to be clear that you’re listening to the child’s concerns and feelings, and that assurances don’t unintentionally make the child feel unseen, and that their emotions are unimportant.
“Verbalizing acceptance of your child’s emotions is a key to helping her feel loved and understood,” writes Meri Wallace LCSW of Psychology Today.
Find mental health support
If the trauma was severe, then it may be best to bring in the support of a child therapist to help your child process the trauma and find a road to healing. She may be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, and this can present in several different ways.
It takes a village, and seeking mental health support can help your family heal. Psychology Today has a search engine for families to find therapists that align with their values.
What if you can't find support?
Mental health resources can be hard to find, sometimes. Many therapists are booked and not able to seek new patients. They also can be extremely costly for families and sometimes aren’t covered by insurance providers.
If you’re struggling to find mental health support try some options below:
- Reach out to local nonprofits or family services to see if there are options for your family.
- Talk with your child’s pediatrician to see if they have recommendations.
- Connect with parents on Facebook pages like National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for support or recommendations from families.
- Talk to your child’s school teachers and counselors about options in your area.