As a parent, you may be struggling with how to talk with your child about traumatic events. Tackling such conversations may not be easy, but when done in a proactive, positive manner it can help children feel safer and more secure. Here are suggestions on how to approach this difficult topic.
- Age-appropriate conversations. Tell the truth and keep the conversation at a level that is appropriate for your child’s age. For preschool and elementary age children, a one sentence overview is sufficient. Focus on the heroes and helpers of the story. For older children and teenagers, focus on listening and displaying empathy.
- Find out what they know. Explain or correct rumors or misunderstandings your child may have.
- Listen to their thoughts and point of view. Allow them to express their feelings and concerns before you respond.
- Responding to ‘Why?’. It is okay to say that you don’t know why these events happen. Explain that sometimes horrible, upsetting events occur, but there are many more good people in the world than bad.
- Media coverage. It is unnecessary for very young children to watch news coverage of traumatic events. Shield children from seeing upsetting pictures. If they do see pictures, counteract this by showing them positive images of the helpers and heroes. For older children, limit the amount of time they spend watching the news. Frequent exposure to media coverage may heighten their anxiety and fears.
- Reaffirm safety. Talk with children and teens about the heroic response from law enforcement and fellow citizens. Reassure them that although tragic things may sometimes happen, most people want a safer world and are actively working towards it.
- Take action. Consider age-appropriate ways for your child to volunteer in your community. For example, children/teens may want to write thank you letters or draw pictures for first respondents, local law enforcement, or medical workers. This can be a way to take positive action, express caring, and reinforce human values.
- Coping skills. Remind children how they have successfully coped with past struggles and encourage them to use similar strategies now. Building and maintaining a strong social support system is critical to the healing process.
- Signs of stress or anxiety. Monitor your child for signs of stress, anxiety, or fear in the upcoming weeks. Signs may include: difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite, withdrawal from friends or activities he/she use to enjoy, fear of being alone, concentration difficulties, irritability, or changes in behavior.
- Take care of yourself. Be a model for your children on how to manage traumatic events. Try to maintain your daily routine, engage in activities that bring enjoyment, and practice self-care with healthy nutrition and exercise.
Check in with children regarding their processing of the situation in upcoming weeks. Reaffirm that you are there to provide safety and unconditional support. Be sure to reach out for help from a qualified psychologist if you or your child are experiencing persistent or significant symptoms of stress or anxiety following a traumatic event.