Talking with Kids about Trauma and Tragedy


             All too often, very bad and traumatic things happen in the world. Many of these terrible things find their way into the news. This can be shocking and depressing not only for the people who were directly affected, but also for the general public. We are often repeatedly exposed to words and images that can trigger emotional and behavioral reactions in adults and children. Below is a short list with brief descriptions of how adults can help children deal effectively with traumatic information from the news and other media sources.

TALKING WITH CHILDREN: CONVERSATIONS ABOUT REALITY

The first step in talking with children is always the opposite of talking. LISTEN. Listen for how children have been affected. Listen for what they’ve seen and heard. Listen for their fears and fantasies. Listen for their personal coping strategies and solutions.

It’s important to listen closely, but if you listen too hard for children to talk about trauma, you run the risk of making them think they SHOULD be traumatized. If this happens, then children often will start giving you what they think you want . . . they’ll start talking about trauma. Therefore, a big challenge for adults is to listen in a balanced way.  Don’t spend too much time everyday encouraging children to talk about their deepest fears. If you do, it’s possible that everyone will get more and more scared — including you!

Perhaps the biggest deal when talking with kids about real tragic events, is being able to answer their questions. They may ask you terribly hard questions, like, “Will there be a plane crashing in our neighborhood?” or “Do you think a shooter might come to our school?” or “Will I be safe at home?” or “Teacher, are you scared?”

Children often ask very good and very hard questions. An important guideline for teachers, parents, and counselors is to stay balanced. This means you can admit to being scared — as long as you also admit to being strong. Some children can quickly pick up on false reassurance, which is one reason why I’m not in agreement with Dr. Joyce Brothers who suggested after 9/11 that it was a good time to lie to your children. Instead, I recommend acknowledgement that the world is not always a safe place, but that you’ll do everything you can to be strong and help keep the child or children safe.

With preschoolers, there are some conversational topics that are best to avoid. For example, there’s no need to go into graphic detail about specific injuries, etc.  This is similar to the fact that very young children don’t need to know all the details about sexuality. It’s better to speak generally about violence and destruction. It’s also very important to protect your children from too much exposure to media coverage of violent events.

It’s also important to never forget about focusing on children’s strengths. Listening first provides you with a foundation for giving children feedback about their strengths. Be sure to listen for children’s strengths . . . and then reflect them back. You can also encourage children to tell you about their strengths – including both ways they’ve handled hard things in the past and ways they might handle hard things in the future.

 PLAYING WITH CHILDREN: REENACTMENT, PRETEND PLAY, AND MASTERY

Younger children will typically play out or reenact their traumatic experiences. For preschoolers pretend play will be the dominant way they deal with the trauma of what they’ve seen and heard. Around 9/11 children were likely to build towers and have them knocked down. They also enacted play activities involving airplanes, police, terrorists (or other “evil/bad” people). If they’ve been exposed to images and heard about school shootings you might see some play activities involving guns and death and loss. For the most part, it’s best to just sit back and watch children as they enact these scenes. By allowing them un-directed play time and some nondirective commentary, you’ll be helping them take their first steps toward healing (more information on non-directive play is included on the “Special Time” tip sheet on this blogsite).

On the other hand, sometimes children get stuck in the same repeated play pattern. This more chronic form of play is referred to as post-traumatic play. When children seem genuinely stuck repeating pretend interactions through non-interactive play that provides no apparent gratification, you may need to interact with them in ways that help them get un-stuck. You might want to try these strategies: (a) have the child stand up and take some deep breaths before resuming play; or (b) interact with the child in a way that disrupts the pattern (for example, you might ask, “what would happen if . . . ?”).

Obviously, rigid post-traumatic play patterns indicate a need for professional assistance.

 DRAWING WITH CHILDREN:  CAPTURING THE FEAR ON PAPER

Children’s fears can seem big and intimidating. That’s true for people of any age. Maybe that’s why, for adults and older children, writing about specific fears and trauma can be so helpful. Somehow, writing things down on paper can help to put it in perspective.

Younger children aren’t able to use the written word effectively for personal journaling. That’s where drawing comes in. When children color, draw, paint, or sculpt their fears, the fears become more manageable.

 STORYTELLING STRATEGIES

Storytelling is a very powerful tradition and technique for dealing with many human problems and challenges. Stories can be designed or obtained through published materials. In response to tragedy, it can be helpful for children to hear stories of bravery under difficult or perilous conditions.

If you choose to invent your own stories, be sure to create a story with a main character and a clear beginning, middle, and ending. If you’re comfortable with it, you can even have the children help invent characters and their own stories.

There are many ways to encourage children to make up stories of their own. The advantage of this is that you get to listen for the dynamics of the children’s story and so it provides some assessment information. As a counseling technique, it’s possible to use a pretend radio or television show. You can invite children to be guests on your “show” and interview them about their experience or have them share a story.

 HELPING WITH TRANSITIONS:

Separation anxiety is a common reaction that children have to stressful news or situations. This means children may have trouble saying goodbye to their parents and being left at school or day care. In most cases, it’s best for parents, children, and staff to develop an individualized goodbye and hello routine for drop-offs and pick-ups. These routines will be less necessary as time goes by, but it’s good to have goodbye and hello rituals there when you need them. For example, having a hello and goodbye song, transitional objects, and other objects of comfort can ease the pain of separation.

 HAVING FUN: USING DISTRACTION, HUMOR, AND PLAY TO MOVE PAST TRAUMA

Don’t forget, it’s easy to pay way too much attention to the traumatic news and ignore regular daily play routines. Don’t fall into this trap. It’s good to keep kids active and keep them having fun. It’s good to be prepared with some games, songs, or activities that you can rely on to engage children and help them forget about the bad news for a while.

 LEARNING ACTIVITIES: MASTERY THROUGH EDUCATION, SAFETY, AND SERVICE

Not only does life go on after a trauma; it’s important for life to keep getting better. Ways to move forward include (a) continuing with educational, skill-building, and stress management activities, (b) promoting safety strategies and skills, and (c) involving children in basic service activities . . . possibly even service activities that include teaching other children strategies for coping with trauma or difficult situations.

 GET HELP AS NEEDED

It’s a sign of strength to get help when it’s needed. You may notice specific reactions or experiences in children or yourself that indicate it’s time to for professional assistance. Some of the primary symptoms of trauma and vicarious trauma that can develop in these situations include the following:

  • Repetitive and intrusive thoughts and images.
  • Sleep problems: Insomnia, nightmares, and night terrors.
  • Separation Anxiety and clingy-ness.
  • Specific fears/phobias.
  • Hypervigilence.
  • Regression.

 SELF CARE NOW AND INTO THE FUTURE

Remember to take good care of yourself so you can be of greater help for others. This could involve many different activities including vigorous exercise, maintaining healthy eating and sleeping routines, and scheduling time for social contact and social support.

This Tip Sheet was written by John Sommers-Flanagan, Ph.D., professor of Counselor Education at the University of Montana.

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2 thoughts on “Talking with Kids about Trauma and Tragedy”

  1. Great Post and great tips to deal with kids. It’s important that after traumatic situations parents find help from professionals on how to properly deal with kids and their much different feelings. Handling these feelings in a positive way will make them more like to grow as healthier adults

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