Today, children are exposed to numerous scary or violent events happening in the world. Whether witnessing scary events through television or other sources of media, or experiencing a traumatic event first hand, children look to adults that surround them to help them feel safe and understand what is happening. For adults, this can feel challenging, particularly when the adults are also responding to and making sense of the same or shared experience. Adults who are viewed as safe and supportive are the best predictor of resilience in youth. Below are some tips that adults can use to help provide support to children who have experienced a traumatic event.
What is Trauma?
Trauma is an emotional response to a distressing event, like an accident, sexual assault, or natural disaster. Typically right after a traumatic event people will experience a period of shock and denial. Over time there can be unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, difficulties with interpersonal relationships, and physical symptoms like headaches and nausea. While all of these symptoms are normal and typical after experiencing a traumatic event, sometimes these symptoms interfere with functioning in daily life (i.e., school, work, friends) and some people may find it hard to move on with their lives.
First, Check-In With Yourself
Before talking with your child about a scary or traumatic event, it is important to first check in with yourself. Ask yourself questions such as “How am I feeling? What do I need?” By checking in with yourself, you can make sure that you are calm and grounded during the conversation with your child. Just like your child has feelings about these experiences, so do you. You might feel scared, worried, overwhelmed, angry, helpless, or sad. Additionally, you may feel distracted, confused, or even numb. These feelings in both parents and children are completely normal following a traumatic experience.
Simply acknowledging the feelings you are having can be a helpful first step. Being able to label emotions can help to promote a sense of calm. By doing this, your brain activity shifts from the alarm centers of the brain to the parts of the brain that support coping and problem solving. Some things that can help with this include taking a few deep breaths, talking to a friend, going for a walk, or doing an activity that typically helps you to feel calm and grounded. Taking time to check in and regulate yourself can help parents prepare to talk to their children in a way that communicates safety, protection and promotes an open space for children to talk about their feelings and experiences and ask questions. It is important to remember that it is okay not to have all the answers. Having a warm and open presence is the most important thing.
Clarify Your Goal
As parents prepare to approach the conversation with their child, it can be helpful to start with a goal in mind. An overall goal can be to create a safe space for your child to share their feelings, questions, reactions, and experience. Some questions that you can ask yourself to prepare include: How might I help my child feel safe? Is there important information for them to know? Is there any misinformation to correct? Overall, it is important for parents to continue to return to the messages of safety and support and not necessarily resolve any issues or immediately move on.
Providing simple facts and information an about the traumatic event can help children to process the event. The type and amount of information provided to the child should be developmentally appropriate. It can be helpful to ask open-ended questions about what they may have already heard and correct any misinformation. This part of the conversation can be brief, simple, and clear. Having multiple short conversations may be more beneficial than one single long conversation. Remember to keep the information shared in-line with what is developmentally appropriate and continue to check in with your child. It's not uncommon for parents to want to hide or avoid talking about distressing situations; however, children are a lot more aware than we often give them credit for and simply avoiding the event often leads to the child feeling confused, unsafe, or left to manage difficult feelings on their own.
Reflection is a skill that can let your child know that you are listening to them. This is done by repeating back to the child what they said verbatim or summarizing what they said. Try to use your child’s own words as much as possible. Most importantly, reflection helps to communicate that you are listening and what the child is saying is important and valid.
Ask Helpful Questions
Asking questions to learn more about your child’s thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and needs can provide an opportunity to gain a better understanding of your child’s experience. Some common questions might include: How are you feeling? What are you thinking/wondering about? Do you have any questions or worries? Asking these questions can encourage your child to share and will help parents to learn more about their child’s feelings and needs.
Children may need time to respond after being asked questions by adults. This time allows them to process emotions and coordinate thinking, especially when it comes to dealing with complex emotions and distressing situations. Speaking slowly, clearly, and giving your child ample time to hear, process, think, and respond can help create a space that feels open and safe.
As mentioned above, it is helpful for adults to learn to label their emotions. Just like adults, it can be helpful for children to label how they are feeling. Sometimes children need support in doing this. Parents can help their child to label emotions by reflecting and naming a feeling that they notice. Learning how to label emotions helps to support emotion regulation.
Validate and Normalize
Parents, it can be helpful to take the time and step into your child’s shoes and let them know that you understand what they are feeling or that you don't know what it's like to feel that way but you will be there for support. Some examples might be, “that makes sense,“ “I can understand why you would feel that way,” “other people feel that way too,” and “you are not alone”. By validating and normalizing your child’s feelings, this further helps them to feel understood.
Reduce Media Exposure
If there is a specific event that is a source of trauma, it is important to be aware of how often you are checking the media when you are with your child and be conscious of how much they are keeping track of the event in the media. Information provided to children from the media should be done in small and developmentally appropriate segments.
When To Seek Additional Support
Sometimes even when children have a safe and supportive environment around them after a traumatic event, they can still experience symptoms that might interfere with their daily life. Some prolonged symptoms that might indicate a need for therapy include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, difficulties with interpersonal relationships, and continued physical symptoms like headaches and nausea. Therapy can be another safe space for your child to process the traumatic event and provide additional healthy coping skills for your child and for you.
At Balanced Minds Psychology & Wellness we specialized in assisting children and their parents with navigating life’s challenges. To learn more about me and the services I provide, checkout my profile. If you are ready to start the therapy process, contact us today to start a free consultation.