Why Talk With Kids About Traumatic Events
There’s no way to sugarcoat this. Our world can be a terrifying place. Humans consistently see war, gun violence, destruction, natural disasters, famine, disease, etc. These things can cause a well-adjusted adult to become overwhelmed with fear and anxiety. So, imagine how they can make our children feel. As caregivers, we are responsible for comforting our children. We’re also tasked with guiding them in making sense of the world around them.
It may seem like a good idea to shield them from negative news (or to keep them in a bubble so to speak.) However, we can do more harm than good if we don’t approach these topics head-on (in an age-appropriate way, of course.)
Children are much smarter than they are given credit for. They have an awareness of what goes on around them (whether it’s happening in their immediate circle or throughout the world.) Therefore, if we don’t have these conversations with them at home, they can become confused and fearful of the unknown or from potential misinformation, possibly causing adverse outcomes.
As an early childhood educator, I’ve had several instances in which my preschoolers have encountered negative situations in their own homes. For example, some of my students have faced divorce/separation, the death of a family member, illness, and/or financial insecurity, to name a few. I’ve also had students ask me questions because they are seeking information regarding world events that they’ve heard about on the news. In these situations, I always tell their caregivers that honest conversations with their little ones are critical in developing social-emotional skills and resilience. These talks not only help our children to understand what’s happening, but also to cope with traumatic news and circumstances.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) states that “adult support and reassurance is the key to helping children through a traumatic time.” They recommend giving preschool-aged children a lot of cuddling and verbal support after a traumatic event. They note that it’s important to get down to their eye level, use words they can understand, and speak using a calm, gentle voice.
Since I am not a medical or mental health professional, I am basing my recommendations on advice from the American Psychological Association (APA), SAMHSA, and Education.com. Here are eight things to remember when talking to children about difficult news:
1. Prepare In Advance
Think about what you want to say beforehand and pick a quiet time and place so that you can answer your child’s questions in a calm environment.
2. Be An Active Listener
Ask them what they know, have heard, and what they are feeling about this news. Ask them if they have specific questions. If you don’t know the answer to something. Be honest. Tell them it’s something you need to find out and that you can look up the information together.
3. Validate Their Feelings And Be Open To Sharing Your Own Feelings
Tell them it is okay and natural to cry and/or feel scared, sad, or anxious after experiencing something like this. Caregivers can help children by encouraging opportunities to express themselves and their feelings through play as well as through writing, drawing, and dancing/singing. In addition, children’s books can be helpful in explaining difficult situations. (Check out the resources at the bottom of the page for more information.)
4. Use Truthful, But Age-Appropriate Language
It’s important to use straightforward language to avoid confusion. Steer clear of using euphemisms. For example, if you are talking about the death of a loved one you should avoid saying “they passed away or they went to sleep.” Instead, you may say, “This person died. When a person dies their body, brain, and heart no longer work anymore. This means we won’t be able to see or talk to this person again. It is okay to feel sad about this. We will miss them very much. We will always have our memories of them and we can talk about them together.”
5. Remain Calm
If your child is showing fear and anxiety, try your best to reassure them that they are safe, loved, and will have your continued support. For example, if your child sees images of a natural disaster that happened across the globe, they may become fearful that their home is in danger. To help alleviate their concerns you can show them a map and talk about where it occurred in relation to where you live.
6. Practice Self-Care And Provide Your Child With Opportunities To Do The Same
Limit your child’s (and your own) exposure to negative news and graphic images. Try to stick to your typical daily routine to provide your child with a sense of normalcy and consistency. Self-care is vital in times of need (like maintaining good eating and sleeping habits.) In addition, provide yourself and your little one with opportunities for exercise, physical activity, and/or participating in something you enjoy doing as a family such as going to the park or library.
7. Highlight The Positives And Contribute To Helpful Causes
There’s a famous quote by Fred Rogers (from the television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) in which he states, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
During times of crisis you will, more often than not, find people who are helping others. Share these examples with your child. If it’s feasible for you and your family you can even find causes or charities in which you can volunteer your time and/or donate money or supplies.
8. Seek Professional Help If Necessary
Children react to trauma in different ways. But, it is possible for preschoolers to exhibit new behaviors like clinginess or fixation on negative news, changes in their eating and sleeping patterns, and/or regression to former behaviors such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting. If you notice that these changes are long-lasting, I would encourage you to contact your doctor for additional support and guidance. There is no shame in seeking out professional help. Early interventions can produce positive outcomes as well as prevent long-term negative impacts.
The biggest takeaway from all of this…our children need to know they aren’t alone during traumatic, scary, or uncertain times. They must be reminded that they are loved and that they can turn to their caregivers for comfort and support.
This article was submitted to Love What Matters by Sally Macaluso, M.ED. of Tenderhearted Teacher. Sally is a toddler parent and certified special education teacher who holds a Master’s Degree in Curriculum & Instruction. She created her website as a way to provide early childhood resources for parents and caregivers of preschool-aged children. She provides strategies on how to encourage their child’s overall development–particularly in terms of their social-emotional growth, academic learning, play skills, and behavior. She is also the creator of Mindful & Wonderful Me: A Wellness Activity Book for Kids. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
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