As much as we want to protect our children, they will inevitably be touched by traumatic events. The terrorist attacks on America have been a horrific example of how trauma affects adults and children.
More recent natural disaster coverage can have similar effects on people. Even if you're not in the disaster area you can experience trauma from repeated exposure to images and descriptions of these events.
After something like this happens, we cannot turn on the television, listen to the radio or get on the internet without exposure to terrible, upsetting events.
Talk About it With Your Children
Many times, as adults, we are trying to sort out our own feelings—ranging from intense anger to empathy for the victims of a tragedy. It is important to keep in mind that our reactions and responses drive the reactions of our children. Children will look to adults in their lives for cues on how to react. In many cases, children don't have the ability to interpret the meanings of our reactions if we don't talk to them about the issues. There are some specific things we can do to help our children learn from a crisis and work through their emotions effectively.
Monitor Television, Internet & Radio Exposure
Although adults understand that repeated images on television refer to only one event, a child may see repetitive images of a tragedy and believe it is a brand new tragedy each time. Seeing these images repeatedly is hard on children. While you may feel drawn to the media for the latest information, make sure you balance your needs with the needs of children that are with you.
If you feel you must watch news reports about a tragedy, when a child is present, be sure to talk about what you are seeing. Make it clear the tragedy was a single incident and that people in authority are taking steps to protect us in the future. Security and safety are the paramount issues when talking with children about traumatic events.
Be Honest With Children
Kids are smart. If you aren't honest with children, they’ll just get information from other sources. The best thing you can do is listen and answer questions as directly as possible. Children will have specific concerns about the future, and people who were hurt, or people who caused an event. While it's tempting to minimize children's concerns to calm them, that often backfires when they realize you haven't been honest with them. Your child needs information just as you do. Also, make sure children understand that a tragedy can be caused by specific individuals, but not an entire religious or ethnic group.
Make sure your children know where you are when you are away from home. Your child should have your work number and be able to contact you. Being available to your child and communicating honestly and supportively is the best thing you can do to make your child feel safe and secure. If you cannot be available, your child can contact the Phone-A-Friend line at Headquarters 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Children Respond in Many Ways
Children will have a variety of responses to traumatic events, based on chronological and developmental ages as well as personalities. Many times children think they “should” feel bad, but don't know why. Don't pressure your child to feel a certain way. Children may feel intense mourning or may be very unemotional. Deal with whatever emotion that's present and don't try to move children from one emotion to another. Reassure your child over and over and as you listen and talk, your children will work through their emotions.
Wait for children to ask questions, or for any good opportunity to bring up the topic. Be careful and aware of your own reactions—anger, shock, or dismay—because children have a tendency to reflect the attitudes of their parents.
Also, don't be surprised if your child exhibits behavior inconsistent with age. A child may regress emotionally to a time that felt safer, or display a false sense of bravado trying to take care of you. Stress can often lead to short-term changes in behaviors and maturity, particularly in children who know someone directly affected by a tragedy or trauma.
Try to get back to your normal routine as soon as possible. Consistency is the key to many parenting questions. Although you may need to allow some flexibility, returning to a normal, predictable routine will be comforting to children.
The Final Word on Talking to Your Children...
There is no perfect way to talk to a child about trauma and tragedy. No one knows your child better than you, and no one can tell you exactly how to talk with your child. Obviously, the guidelines above are just that—guidelines. The main point is doing whatever you can to help your child feel safe and secure.
It's important to take care of yourself so that you can then take care of your child. If you need additional support for yourself or need more information on talking to a child, please contact Headquarters Counseling Center any time.
Brian C. S. Runk, LBSW
Director of Children's Programs, Headquarters Counseling Center