Thoughtful Parenting: Talking about traumatic events
There have been many tragic events in the news this past year. The following are what experts say about discussing similar tragedies with children in a way that does not scare or overwhelm them.
Care for yourself
• Children are influenced by adults’ reactions. First, when possible, ensure your own needs are met, so your initial reaction to the tragedy is not in front of children. Seek support from other adults.
• Be aware your reactions in front of children show them you can handle crises.
• Remain calm. Don’t overwhelm children — share your feelings in a way that matches their age and maturity level.
Care for children
• Provide plenty of verbal and physical love for your child.
• Ask what children know about the event and clarify misinformation.
• Focus on children’s words and feelings without making judgments or recommendations.
• Be available when children need to talk. Be physically and emotionally present as much as possible.
• Stay close. If you must leave, reassure children they are safe and you will return.
• Watch for signs of anxiety including physical symptoms, behavioral changes, acting out or reluctance to attend school. If a child is overly stressed, unable to function in regular routines or behaving dangerously, consider consulting a mental health professional.
• Recognize children of different ages require different methods of communication.
• Reassure children that they did not cause the trauma.
• Maintain regular routines, and assess your child’s anxiety level before resuming out-of-home activities.
• Ensure bedtime is calming.
• Tell children they are safe, you will protect them, the community is safe and these incidents are rare.
• Listen to children’s concerns, and do not minimize their fears.
• Encourage children to discuss or express feelings, and help them label feelings, if needed.
• Give your child something of yours to hold on to or an object that brings him or her comfort.
• Discuss safety measures in your home or school if it is appropriate.
• Limit children’s media exposure of the event, and watch the news with them.
• Provide age-appropriate explanations and answers about the event.
• Encourage children to talk about what they have heard and seen and how they feel.
• Patiently answer repeated questions, and provide consistent answers and information.
• Consider suggesting that upset older children keep a journal; let them know they can share it with you if they wish.
• Younger children can draw pictures about their feelings or act feelings out with puppets.
• Involve children in helpful activities, such as writing thank you letters to aid providers.
• Discuss the heroes who help when there is a tragedy. Remind children there are good people everywhere.
Appropriate guidance and support can help children weather tragedies and grow stronger from the experience. Resources used in this article and more information can be found at centerforparentingeducation.org/library-of-articles/healthy-communication/when-disaster-strikes-talking-to-children-about-traumatic-events, ct.gov/dcf/cwp/view.asp?a=4106&Q=480768 and greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/nine_tips_for_talking_to_kids_about_trauma.
Sue Fegelein, J.D., is Northwest Rocky Mountain CASA’s executive director. NWRM CASA provides volunteer advocates for abused and neglected children and is always looking for community volunteers. Visit the organization’s website at rockymountaincasa.org.
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