From Hurricane Sandy, shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Boston Marathon bombing, the Oso mudslide and most recently the shooting at Seattle Pacific University, so often now we are given immediate access and awareness to traumatic and sudden events happening around the world and right in our own communities. As parents we play an essential role in helping our children cope with stress and the emotions that come with a traumatic event. Sometimes we think it would be better for them not to know about these things or that talking about will make it worse, but it’s important to respect their reactions and provide a place for them to talk about it.
Why is it important to talk with my child?
Talking to your child is an important first step in helping them understand and process any life event and especially a large scale traumatic event. Your child may have already heard about the event through school, social media, friends or other sources. Taking the initiative to talk with them allows you the opportunity to clarify the facts, answer questions and provides them a chance to share their own feelings.
What should I tell my child?
Knowing where to begin can be overwhelming. When thinking about what to share with your child or teen, consider what you think would be most helpful for them to know. Often older children and teens need more specific concrete information, like location, what exactly occurred and what is currently happening. Most children will wonder, “why did this happen?” You may need to reassure your child of his or her own safety. A common concern is, “could this happen to me?” or “am I and my family safe?” Going over the safety measures that your family, their school and the community have can go a long way in helping with their fears. Remember you do not have to have all the answers or facts and can remind your child that more information will be learned over time.
You can continue to be a role model for your child in how to respond to events like these. You can be open about your feelings. For example, “I feel sad when I hear about people being hurt because of _______.” This helps encourage your child to share their feelings too. Offer suggestions as to how you take care of yourself and help them to do the same. Play is an essential part of childhood and children do most of their emotional processing through play. Having conversations with young children as they are engaged in calm play, like coloring, can help. As your child processes the event, they may ask questions or talk of the event weeks even months later. Also, consider limiting the amount of news and TV coverage to the event, as continued exposure does not allow for a break time for processing.
For more information on children’s reaction to trauma and traumatic events and how you can help can be found at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (www.nctsn.org).