Tag Archives: children

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.


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.


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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Indirect Power

Indirect power involves a strategy or process whereby parents obtain compliance through an indirect means. In contrast to direct power, this particular strategy generally doesn’t activate rebellion and therefore power struggles are minimized. Indirect power strategies include some of the most important parenting strategies of all time, as well as a few strategies that are somewhat playful and, some might say, manipulative.

The most important indirect parenting strategy is modeling. If parents don’t want their children to swear, they should avoid swearing (at least in their children’s presence). Children are strongly inclined to model their behavior after their parents’ behavior, especially if they respect their parents. There is scientific truth in the old saying, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963; Bandura & Walters, 1963).

Modeling highlights the perpetual 24/7 aspect of parenting. If you tell your child, “Don’t lie,” but then you call in sick so you can go skiing instead of going to work, or sit home on a night when you turned down a social invitation because you were “too busy,” you’re role-modeling the opposite of what you’re preaching. In essence, you’re asking your children to do as you say, but not as you do. And we all know how well that works! Parental behavior is often closely scrutinized by children, even when they don’t let on that they’re watching.

John recalls a particularly uncomfortable situation with his younger daughter when she was four years old. As he hurried on his drive home with her beside him in a child’s seat, they were forced to stop at a railroad crossing. Frustrated, John muttered under his breath a particular four-letter word generally associated with fecal matter. Much to his horror, his sweet 4-year-old instantly picked up the beat, repeatedly letting fly with the dung word until, finally, John came up with the bright idea of correcting her by compounding his mistake: “Oh no sweetheart, you’ve got that wrong. What Daddy really said was, ‘shoot!’ Try saying that, ‘shoot.’” When his daughter finally was able to satisfactorily mutter “shoot” under her breath, John felt a mixed gratification. He had lied to his daughter to stop her from using profanity:). Clearly, this was only a marginal parenting success and one that illustrates the complex burden of parental modeling:(.

The most common forms of indirect power are listed and described in our book, “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen.” They include the following:

Table 3.3 Indirect Power Strategies



Character feedback

Giving choices


Wagering, racing, and giving audience

And here’s a description of one of these indirect power strategies:

Wagering, Racing, and Giving Audience

These indirect strategies are usually playful. For example, parents might say, “I bet I can eat up my broccoli before you do” (wagering) or “Let’s race and see who can get dressed and ready to go out to the car and to school the fastest” (racing) or “I heard you’re really good at your times tables. How about if you do a set for me and I just watch and listen?” (giving audience).

To be honest, wagering, racing, and giving audience are manipulative ploys. They involve enticing children into compliance using techniques framed as fun and competitive. As a consequence, some parents don’t like these particular parenting strategies.

Nevertheless, these techniques can be useful and are often employed effectively by some parents. For example, as described previously, with children who are slow at dressing themselves, an indirect intervention might involve a competition or race:

Okay, sweetheart, let’s see who can get ready the fastest. I’ll run to my bedroom and see if I can get dressed and ready to go before you’re all dressed. I think I’m the fastest, but you might be. I don’t know. Are you ready? Ready, set, go!

The problem with this form of indirect power is not so much that it’s manipulative (almost everything is manipulative in one way or another), but that it can begin to feel manipulative to children. Consequently, although parents should use positive role-modeling whenever possible, these more playful and manipulative indirect approaches should be used only occasionally.

Tips for Parents on Using Natural and Logical Consequences

The following is an excerpt from the bestselling (hahaha) book, “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen.” Check it out at: http://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&qid=1344466265&sr=8-8&keywords=how+to+listen+so+parents+will
The Beauty and Power of Natural and Logical Consequences

Life is not easy and children (and adults) learn through struggles, failures, and disappointments. Your goal, as a parent, is to create a reasonable, consistent, and loving home and then let your child struggle with the demands of life. These demands include very basic things like:

  • Not getting to watch television after a certain time
  • Participating in housecleaning
  • Not getting attention 100 percent of the day
  • Having to get ready and get to school on time
  • Having to wait your turn to get served dessert or to play with an especially fun toy
  • Not getting to eat your favorite food for every meal
  • Having to tie your own shoes

As you might gather from the preceding list, even little things in life can be hard for a growing child; but to learn, children need to directly experience frustration and disappointment.  

Natural or logical consequences are a necessary part of learning. They help your child get better at surviving disappointments in the world and in your family home. Natural and logical consequences are always related in some way to the misbehavior and are not given out with anger or as “punishment.”

Here are some examples:

1. Your children leave toys in a public area of the house, even though they’ve been told to put toys away when done playing. Logical consequence: Use a “Saturday box” or put the toys in timeout. This involves picking up the toys and putting them in a box and storing them away until the next Saturday (or whatever day), when they’re given back. This logical consequence avoids the overreaction (“If you don’t put your toys away, then I’ll give them away to someone else”) and the attention-giving lecture (“Let me tell you about when I was a child and what would happen if I left my toys out . . .”) and instead provides children with a clear, consistent, and reasonable consequence.

2. Your children argue with you about a consequence or about you being unfair. Logical consequence: You let your children know, “I don’t feel like arguing about this” and leave the area. You may want to go to the bathroom to take time away to further develop your planned response. While remaining friendly, another important message to give is, “I know you’d like things your way, but we have rules and consequences for everyone in our family.” Of course this may trigger another argument and you can walk away again and tell your children, “I know you can figure this out and not have this consequence next time.”

3. You cook dinner, but your children don’t show up on time. Reasonable rules and logical consequences: If you cook dinner, everyone needs to show up on time and be respectful about the dinner-eating process. That doesn’t mean everyone has to eat every bite or provide you with lavish praise for your most excellent meal, but respectful attendance is a reasonable expectation. If your child is late for dinner, one reminder is enough. No drama or excess attention is needed. Just sit down and start eating and enjoying the mealtime process. Possible logical and natural consequences include: (1) Your child prepares the next meal; (2) you put away foods after you dish yourself up and so the child has to get them out and serve himself; (3) you got there early and prepared the food and so your child gets to stay afterward and clean up; (4) no special rewards (e.g., eating dinner in front of the television); instead, your child eats alone at the table.

To do logical and natural consequences, it’s helpful to work on the following:

1. Take the “punishing” quality out of your voice and the interactions. This is not about punishment; it’s about what’s logical, reasonable, and natural. You can even be friendly and positive.

2. Prepare in advance. Because you’ll be emotional when your children are noncompliant, it’s critical that you have a list of logical and reasonable and natural consequence ideas in your head. Otherwise, you will overreact. Going to parenting classes or talking with other parents can help you identify a wider range of reasonable consequences.

3. Use small consequences. Your purpose is to teach your child. Your purpose is not to hurt or humiliate. Learning occurs best if children are not emotionally overwhelmed by large consequences. Small consequences provide plenty of feedback.

4. Use mirroring and encouragement. Reflect back to your children what they’re feeling (“It’s very upsetting that you can’t play with your toys for the rest of the week”). Let your child know that you think things will go better the next time around (“I know, if you want to, you’ll be able to remember to put your toys away next time”).

5. Don’t lecture or shame. Let the small consequence do its work.


The natural and logical consequences (for Leah and Tommy) of growing up in Absarokee, MT.

Help Children Deal with Frustration and Become more Persistent

Carolyn Webster-Stratton from the University of Washington has developed an incredible evidence based approach designed to “promote children’s social competence, emotional regulation and problem solving skills and reduce their behavior problems.” This approach is titled “The Incredible Years.” More information is at the website:  http://www.incredibleyears.com/About/about.asp


Below is a short excerpt from our “How to Talk so Parents will Listen” book that focuses on one small dimension of Dr. Webster-Stratton’s program. Our book is at: http://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1342904983&sr=1-5&keywords=how+to+listen+so+parents+will+talk+and+talk+so+parents+will+listen

Persistence Coaching

A part of the “Incredible Years” parent training curriculum includes a unit on what Webster-Stratton (2007) refers to as persistence coaching. Persistence coaching is especially designed for children with attention difficulties and provides an excellent example of intense and passionate social reinforcement. Webster-Stratton (2007) describes the procedure:

During persistence coaching, the parent is commenting on the child’s attention to the task. A parent might say to his child who is working with blocks, “You are really concentrating on building that tower; you are really staying patient; you are trying again and are really focusing on getting it as high as you can; you are staying so calm; you are focused; there, you did it all by yourself.” With this persistence coaching, the child begins to be aware of his internal state when he or she is calm, focused, and persisting with an activity. (pp. 317–318; italics in original)

This example by Webster-Stratton not only illustrates focused and passionate attention as a behavioral reinforcer, it also includes components of mirroring, solution-focused strategies, and character feedback. After getting intensive attention and specific feedback for persisting on a tower-building task, children are more likely to overcome negative beliefs about themselves and to begin seeing themselves as persistent and capable.

Some parents will say their child hates positive comments and prematurely conclude that these approaches are destined to backfire and be ineffective, perhaps even detrimental. This will be most likely when children display oppositional tendencies and/or have very negative internal beliefs about themselves. As if it were constantly Opposite Day, it will seem to parents as if praise is punishment and punishment is praise when they’re trying to work with their children. Webster-Stratton (2007) comments on this phenomenon:

Children with conduct problems usually get less praise and encouragement from adults than other children. When they do get praise, they are likely to reject it because of their oppositional responses. For some children, this oppositional response to praise and encouragement is actually a bid to get more attention and to keep the adult focusing on them longer. Parents can help these children by giving the praise frequently and then ignoring the protests that follow. Over time with consistent encouragement, the children will become more comfortable with this positive view of themselves. (p. 312) 

Our general policy is to closely watch for backward behavior modification and to counter it by teaching parents how to pay attention to positive behavior, ignore negative behavior, and administer passionate and surprise rewards and boring consequences. We’re sometimes surprised (and rewarded) by how quickly parents see that they’re inadvertently and destructively celebrating Opposite Day, when a regular day would suffice. (See Parent Homework Assignment 9-1.)

Parenting Advice: Don’t Say it More than Three Times

A Visit to the Mall

Here’s what a parent of a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old explained when she came in for a consultation:

Parent: My friend invited me and my two kids to meet her and her two-year-old at Bellevue Square for dinner and shopping. I knew better. This friend makes me feel insecure. We met for dinner at this nice café and there’s nothing there my kids will eat. After a while, they start running around the café. I settle them down and we walk around to shop and my five-year-old son is running way ahead and I keep trying to get him to get back with us and he won’t listen. We eventually get to a pet store and my two-year-old is climbing on stuff and my five-year-old is knocking on the pet-cage glass right where it says “Don’t knock on the glass” and he won’t stop. Finally, I drag them both to a bench and make them sit there and I yell at them and they start crying and I’m humiliated and have to carry them both outside to the car and yell at them some more. I was one of those parents you see who has out-of-control children and then goes berserk.

Consultant: So, eventually your kids started listening to you? [Focusing on how the negative behavior sequence finally stops can be revealing.]

Parent: Yes. Because they knew it was over.

Consultant: When you tell that story it reminds me of how kids can sometimes almost read our minds and know when something is really important to us and know when they can take advantage of us by not listening. But then when we somehow make it clear that the fun and games are over, suddenly they get it and cooperate.

Parent: I felt so uncomfortable with my friend and her potty-trained little girl and I couldn’t even come close to controlling my kids. And later that night, when I was talking about it to my 5-year-old, I apologized for yelling and losing my mind and I asked him why he didn’t listen to me and he said, “I listened, I just didn’t do what you said.” I couldn’t believe it!

Consultant: That’s amazing. So, he really did know what was going on.

Parent: He did and he still didn’t cooperate.

Consultant: Can I share some ideas with you?

Parent: Yes. I’d love some ideas!

Consultant: We used to have a parent educator here who taught a class called, “They only listen when I yell . . . and other parenting myths.” The point of the class was exactly what you’ve been talking about. It’s not that our kids only pay attention when we yell, it’s that they only comply when they know we’re completely serious. Tell me, how many times did you have to ask your five-year-old to cooperate before he finally did?

Parent: It had to be twenty times. I was trying to get him to sit down at the café, to come back to us when we were shopping, to stop knocking on the glass at the pet shop, and he would sometimes partly respond and sometimes not at all, until the end, when he sat on the bench and started crying.

Consultant: Here’s what I’m thinking. You already said you set yourself up with this dinner with this friend and her practically perfect two-year-old. I’ll bet somewhere inside you were really wanting to avoid a confrontation with your kids and the embarrassment that goes with it. And they sensed you were a little bit afraid to confront them and afraid to give out firm consequences and so they just chose not to listen or cooperate.

Parent: I know. I know. I don’t even take my two-year-old grocery shopping any more because it’s too much. And obviously they knew I didn’t really want to follow through with any consequences. But what can I do?

Consultant: I have two ideas and the first one will sound really weird.

Parent: Just tell me.

Consultant: This is crazy, but you need to start looking forward to when your children have tantrums or misbehave.

Parent: That is weird.

Consultant: I know, but unless you look forward to it, with confidence that you can handle whatever they do, they’ll sense your dread and fear and they’ll be the ones who are confident they can do whatever they want—like run ahead in the mall and knock on the pet store glass cages—because they sense you’re afraid to stop them.

Parent: Okay. I get it. But I don’t know how I can look forward to a meltdown in the mall.

Consultant: And that’s exactly why we need to develop a nice and clear and practical plan for the next time this sort of thing happens. You need a very simple plan for limit-setting with your children. Because if you have to ask them to cooperate twenty times, they know they don’t have to pay any attention or respect to you—until the twentieth time when you’re yelling and screaming. The plan should have one or two warnings and then a small consequence. For example, in the mall situation, it might have been embarrassing, but the first time your kids didn’t respond to your requests to sit down or walk with you, you could have given a clear warning, something like, “Okay, if you don’t walk with me, then we’ll go outside and spend some time on the bench until you’re ready to come back in.” Then, the second time one of them didn’t cooperate, you’d calmly collect them and take a brief timeout on the bench or in your car. Then, if it happened a third time, you could turn to your friend and say, “I’m sorry, but it looks like my kids aren’t cooperating right now and so I need to take them home.” I know that might have felt embarrassing and awkward, but it would communicate very clearly to your children that you are a serious mom who’s confident in her limits and decisions.

Parent: It wouldn’t have been half as embarrassing as the way things turned out.

In this case, we developed a very simple limit-setting system. It involved three steps:

1.  The first time the children misbehave, give a clear warning.

2.  The second time the children misbehave, take them into a brief and boring timeout from the fun.

3.  The third time the children misbehave, the fun activity ends.

In addition to these three steps, we discussed managing the children’s physical needs by checking if they were hungry, tired, sick, or hurting and planning in advance for outings. We also discussed how she could review with her children, in advance of the outing, exactly what she expected and exactly what would happen (brief public timeout, followed by a disappointing trip back home) if misbehavior occurred. Finally, we suggested that she set up some practice outings where she could quickly and effectively implement the consequences without the pressure of a friend looking on. The purpose of these outings was to practice the plan and demonstrate to her children exactly what would happen if and when public misbehavior occurred.

Overall, this procedure is consistent with what we know from the science of behavioral psychology. As Kazdin (2008) states: “Here’s a rough rule of thumb to go by: if you say it twice (the initial instruction plus one reminder), that’s reminding; if you say it three or more times, you’re nagging and nagging can undermine [your credibility and power]” (p. 172). In addition to Kazdin’s good advice, we like to emphasize to parents that most children are amazingly intuitive—like dogs, they can sense their parents’ fear.

A Guide to Limit-Setting with Your Kids: Montana Parenting Homework Part 3:

A Practical Guide to Setting Limits

This guide is adapted from: How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen (Wiley, 2011)

Unfortunately, children are not born knowing how to deal with frustration, anger, and disappointment. This means it’s our job to teach them how to deal with these difficult and sometimes unpleasant emotions.

One way to teach your child about how to handle frustration and other difficult emotions is through limit-setting. If you let your child do whatever she wants anytime she wants to, she’ll have trouble learning how to cope with frustration. This can happen if you always give your children whatever they want.

Many parents mistakenly think that when they set limits, they need to be mean or especially tough. Don’t make that mistake. Good limit-setters are firm, but kind and compassionate. Try to be the kind of boss you’d like to have yourself.

An effective limit-setting strategy includes the following:

1. Set a clear limit or clear expectation.

2. If your child appears upset or resistant, show empathy for your child’s frustration, disappointment, or anger.

3. Repeat the limit in clear language (you could also have your child repeat the limit or plan back to you).

4. Give your child a reasonable choice or timeline (this is especially important with strong-willed children; see the following for examples).

5. Show more empathy by joining in with your child’s unhappiness (this might include telling a story, if there’s time).

6. Enforce the limit on time and with a logical consequence.

7. Stay positive and encouraging.

A Limit-Setting Example

1. Set a clear limit: “Dinner will be ready in five minutes, so it’s time to turn off your computer game.”

2. Show empathy by using feeling words: “I know it’s hard to stop doing something fun and you’re feeling very upset.”

3. Repeat the limit: “But you know it’s time to stop playing computer games.”

4. Give a choice and a timeline: “Either you can stop playing in the next two minutes, or I’ll unplug the computer.”

5. Show more empathy by joining in with your child’s unhappiness: “I hate it when I have to stop doing something I love.”

6. Enforce the limit on time and with a logical consequence. (Say what you’ll do and then do what you said: If you said it will be two minutes, wait two minutes and enforce the limit; don’t wait three minutes or one minute).

7. Stay positive and encouraging: “Even though I had to turn off your computer in the middle of your game tonight, I’m sure you’ll be able to plan for this and turn it off yourself tomorrow.”

Remember, although it’s your job to teach your child how to become more responsible and how to cope with the frustrations of life, you won’t be able to do this perfectly; no one does this perfectly. Just keep the principles in this homework assignment in mind and practice them when you can.

[The book can be found at: http://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=sr_1_9?ie=UTF8&qid=1341756323&sr=8-9&keywords=How+to+Listen+so+parents+will%5DImage