How To Talk To Your Child About Trauma

July 3, 2020

Being a witness to or involved in a severe accident, violent crime, terrorist attack, or natural disaster (such as an earthquake or hurricane) can be overwhelmingly stressful for children at any age. Even kids and teens who were not directly impacted or involved in the incident can still experience trauma due to repeated exposure to horrific images of the event on news and social media and repeated discussions about the event within the perceived safety of their home.

Whether your child or teen lived through the event that itself, witnessed it, or experienced trauma through the aftermath of the event, they are likely to be affected by a variety of intense, frightening, and confusing emotions. In many cases, these unpleasant emotions will fade and eventually disappear over time. However, during times of immediate stress directly following the event, there is plenty you can do as a parent to help support and reassure your child or teen. Below are a series of coping tips you can use to help your child manage the symptoms of traumatic stress, rebuild their sense of safety and security, and move forward from the traumatic experience.

1) Initiate the conversation:

Although your child may not be talking about a tragic or traumatic event, they are still likely thinking about it. Your child routine may sense your discomfort and not want to upset you further by bringing the event up, or they may be too overwhelmed by their own confusing feelings and emotions to begin a conversation successfully.

Most adolescents and teens can benefit from talking about the events. While some children, mostly those younger than age five, are likely unable to articulate their feelings or emotions, older children Are mostly capable of doing so. Keep in mind too, your child or teen may not be ready to talk about the event yet, so don’t push. To open up the conversation, you can start by asking simple questions. These questions can include things such as:

  • How do you feel about what happened?
  • How do you feel about what you see on television about the event?
  • Are your friends at school talking about what happened?

Again, depending on their current frame of mind and ability to discuss their emotions, your team may or may not be ready to talk yet. Reassure them that you are available when they’re ready and allow them the time and space they need to process their emotions.

2) Offer reassurance:

No matter how old we are, tragedy or a traumatic event can shake our sense of safety and stability. This is likely even more true for younger children who may not have experienced an event such as this before. One goal of your conversation with your child or teen Should be to provide them with a sense of reassurance. They need to know that:

  • things will get better
  • you are there for them regardless of what they need
  • they can come to you with questions at anytime
  • they are safe and so are their loved ones

You can also help to make your reassurances more believable by pointing out new or additional safety measures that are being taken Either at home, at school, or in their communities. It often helps children in teens to know that other grownups are working hard to keep them safe in the wake of a traumatic event.

3) Listen:

This may sound like common sense; after all, we always want to be good listeners for our children. But we are often forced to admit that we do not always do the best job of truly listening. The ability to simply listen is even more crucial when a traumatic event has occurred. This means we need to give our child our full attention. Please do not jump to conclusions, try to fill in the blanks of their story, or attempt to minimize what they are saying, regardless of how silly or illogical it may seem to you. Your ability to listen calmly and attentively, even to concerns which might seem unrealistic or unreasonable to you, communicates that their fears are not too frightening to deal with and that you are there to help them through.

4) Explore what they already know

By listening attentively, you can discover what your children have already learned, seen, or been told about a traumatic event. Some of what they “know” may be rumor driven, and some may be rooted in fact. If you are unsure or cannot discern what they have learned, merely asking what they have learned about the event may be helpful. The purpose behind this conversation is to help correct any misconceptions or untruths your child or teen may have picked up along the way while helping to offer more accurate information. You can adjust the level of detail you provide based on your child’s age and emotional capabilities. Some of their questions may be difficult to answer, and it is ok to admit that you aren’t sure what the answer is but let them know you will try to learn and ask if they want to help you through that process (if they are old enough of course).

5) Encourage children to share their feelings

When children experience a traumatic event (either directly or indirectly), they are likely to experience a litany of different emotions. Sadness, anxiety, fear, stress, and even excitability are all possible in response to tragic or violent situations. Whatever they may be feeling, it is essential you show understanding and acceptance. Let them know it is ok to feel sad or be scared and that nothing is wrong with them for feeling emotions they may not be accustomed to. It is important to help them realize their feelings are natural and healthy and not a sign of weakness or failure of some sort. If we can help them accept and express their feelings, they are likely to be more manageable.

6) Share your feelings

Many experts believe that sharing your feelings with your child can be beneficial. There are, however, some restrictions on what and how you should share. First, it is essential to communicate or ensure they understand that you can handle whatever you may be feeling. Your child seeing that even though you are upset, you can pull yourself together and continue on is an integral part of their recovery. Be a “role model” in how you manage and how you convey your emotions. Try not to overwhelm them with adult emotions or concerns that are above their emotional capabilities. It may be beneficial to use limited expressions of emotion, especially with younger children. For example, “you seem sad when we talk about this. I feel sad too. This way, you can demonstrate acceptance and empathy while not overburdening them with emotions or thoughts they may not be ready to manage. Again, this step depends on the age of your child. For teens and older children, their emotional capabilities are likely more substantial.

7) Focus on the positives

When tragedy or trauma occurs, there is (often) also heroism mixed in. Acts by police officers, medical personnel, or even ordinary citizens help to show that not all is negative. The truth is, entire organizations exist for this very reason. For example, the American Red Cross is a steadfast presence at the site of tragedies such as floods, fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Many local state agencies have specific emergency management divisions that train and rehearse tragic incidents (such as train accidents or plane crashes) to ensure should such a horrific incident occurs; they can quickly and effectively begin their work. The primary message here is that despite the bad, there are good people all around.

8) Encourage your child to act

When we feel pain or see others in pain, it often motivates us to find a way to help. Encourage your teen to do something about (and with) what they are feeling. Channeling their emotion into action can provide them an outlet to restore their sense of control over their personal situation. Some suggestions you could provide include:

  • Writing a letter to victims or their families
  • Sending thank-you notes to doctors, firefighters, doctors, or police
  • Raising money for charity

While the depth or extensive nature of trauma may seem far too significant for one person to make a difference, you can reassure them that their efforts will not go unnoticed or unappreciated.

9) Know when to seek help

Is there a “normal” reaction a child should have to tragedy? Not exactly. However, experts agree that there is a “reasonable” period of recovery. If more than three months have passed since the event and your child or teen is still struggling- with anxiety, fear, hopelessness, sleep disturbances, sadness, or headaches- it may be time to consult a mental health professional here at Hillcrest. Every child is different, and therefore, how he or she reacts will vary. Other factors that will impact how your teen responds to and recovers from a traumatic event include how close to home the tragedy was, whether they were a victim of trauma in the past, and their general mental health. If your teen already struggles with a pre-existing mental health condition (such as anxiety disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder), it will likely be more difficult for them to manage emotions associated with a traumatic event.

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If your child or teen is struggling with the process of recovering from a traumatic event, it may be time to consider working with a mental health professional. If your child or teen continues to struggle weeks after the event, they may have post-traumatic stress disorder and in need of treatment beyond what can be provided at home. At Hillcrest, our experienced team of adolescent treatment medical professionals can help your teen and your family manage the symptoms and challenges to recovery that are hindering their ability to resume their previously healthy state of being.