Talking to Children About Traumatic Events: Understanding Children's Reaction to Trauma

Article Credit: The Center for Parenting Education



Understand Children’s Reaction to Trauma

Adults and children respond differently to crises, tragedies and trauma. Adults can understand events with more logic and rational thinking. Children’s intellectual abilities are not so well developed. Children, especially very young ones, think magically.  They are unrealistic and unable to understand complex and abstract concepts.


How Children See the World

Children are very self-centered and can believe that the world revolves around them and that everything that happens is related to them.  Therefore, they believe that they and their families are vulnerable to the remote crises they hear about. During such stressful times, they may become even more concerned about what affects them personally than usual.  Expect your children to think more about themselves, at least at first.  Once they feel that their needs are being met, they are more likely to think about helping others.


How Children Show Anxiety

There is no one way in which children express worries and fears at times of greater stress. Look for signs of increased anxiety in your children, remembering that each one may communicate upset feelings in different ways.


Physical symptoms These can include such as stomach aches or headaches.


Behavioral changes These can include such things as unusual hyperactivity, drop in grades, not wanting to go to school, excessive crying, withdrawal, increased clinginess, loss of interest in their usual activities, or lack of their usual enjoyment in life.


Tearfulness, sadness, talking about scary ideas or scary feelings.


Fighting with peers, parents or other adults or not being able to get along.


Regression Many children return to an earlier age of behavior when they remember feeling safer.  Younger children may wet the bed, want a bottle, begin to thumb suck again or use baby talk; older children may not want to be alone.  It is important to be patient and comforting if your child responds this way.


Sleep disorders Some children have difficulty falling asleep, other may wake frequently or have troubling dreams, others may have nightmares.  Give your child something that will comfort him when going to sleep, like a stuffed animal, a blanket, a flashlight.The bedtime routine may take longer than it used to for a while. Be patient; it may take a while before your child can sleep through the night again.


Acting out A child may show distress by provocative and angry behaviors.  You can help the child by setting limits on behavior, making him feel safe and secure, and encouraging him to express his feelings in words or through creative outlets.


Irritability or difficulty in being calmed and soothed.


Overreaction to minor stress A child may overreact to incidents or minor changes.  This is a common reaction and can last a few weeks to a few months.


Feeling helpless A feeling of powerlessness is painful for both adults and children. Being active in caring for or helping others, writing to people who have been hurt or thanking those who have directly helped in responding to the trauma can give a child a feeling of hope and control.  Look for ways for your child and family to help those directly affected by the tragedy.


Children May Not Know How to Deal with their Feelings.

  • They can’t always identify their own feelings.

  • They are often overwhelmed by their feelings.

  • They often don’t know how to express or put words to their feelings.

  • They can express their feelings in a variety of ways, some that are confusing to parents and are indirect.  If you listen to your children’s questions and observe their behavior, you will have a better idea of what they are concerned about. Know your children’s level of intellectual, emotional and social maturity and use this knowledge as a guide for what to tell your children, how to respond to them, and to understand their reactions to the crisis.

  • Listen and watch carefully to sense the depth of your particular child’s reaction to the traumatic event. Tune in to the temperamental and developmental needs of each child; some will openly express their feelings and others will need to be guided into sharing.


Children’s Unique Reactions Through the Ages

Children of different ages need different approaches to help them through the crisis.  Each child will have a personal way of absorbing information and expressing his feelings about the crisis depending on his temperament, age and maturity. Armed with the following guidance, you can decide how much to share and how much to protect your children from the details of the situation.


Elementary School Children

School aged children are better equipped to understand abstract concepts than younger children, and therefore can better comprehend the meanings behind events. You may be able to tell them more details about what happened and why.

  • Appreciate the limits and abilities of elementary school age children.

  • Children tend to blame themselves. Children younger than 7 or 8 tend to think that if something goes wrong, it is their fault. They might believe that they are responsible for the crisis because they “did something wrong.” Be sure your child understands that he did not cause this trauma.

  • Exposure to television and media should be limited. Children can be traumatized by images they cannot understand. If they are exposed to the media, an adult should be present to discuss what has been seen and heard. As mcuh as possible, limit media exposure.

  • Answer questions with accurate information. Relate your answers to your children’s worries  Friends’ ideas should be discussed and misinformation corrected.

  • They may need specific reasons to believe that all of us are safe. You can reassure them that despite the crisis they will be taken care of.

  • School-aged children may not want to talk for long periods of time about the trauma. They may visit their concerns briefly and then turn to play or do schoolwork. This is a way that children can avoid feeling overwhelmed or too scared. To recognize whether and when they have concerns about what happened: pay attention to changes in behavior and mood.ask about children’s ideas.

Pre-adolescents and Adolescents

  • They may be able to understand more about the trauma. This means they can handle exposure to some images and information that younger children cannot adequately understand. Parents can use the teen’s more advanced ability to think and talk to discuss their thoughts, feelings and worries.

  • Some older children are still not emotionally mature enough. These teens are not able to process the information about the event or disaster without becoming overly anxious. They need to be shielded from some of the media coverage and allowed much opportunity to talk about what they are seeing and hearing.

  • Drastic changes in behavior might indicate high levels of distress.

  • Forcing teens to talk about their feelings is not helpful. Instead, make sure your teens have a variety of opportunities to talk to people they are comfortable with and who can help them understand their feelings, when they are ready. Just because your teen hasn’t said something about the trauma doesn’t mean he isn’t affected by it.

  • Teens can talk to adults or to peers to understand what happened. Some older children will benefit from joining in the adult conversations and some are more comfortable talking in groups with their peers. Some older children are reluctant to discuss their needs and feelings with their peers who might not see this as acceptable. Some older children are reluctant to discuss their needs and feelings with you because their developmental task is to separate and become independent of their parents. You can let your teen know that you are available if he wants to talk with you about what happened.

  • Let your kids talk first about what they think happened. It is often easier to begin discussions by asking your children what their friends and classmates are thinking, feeling and saying about the tragedy. In most cases, it is not a good idea to force your children to talk with you, but instead, keep the door open for them to come back and discuss the crisis and their concerns about it later.

  • Be honest. When you talk about what happened, don’t diminish the nature or extent of the tragedy. Share clear and accurate information.  Ask your teen what he thinks happened and what other kids in school are saying. Correct any false fears or misinformation.

  • Talk with your teen about your own feelings. Explain how the trauma is affecting you, admit your feelings, but don’t burden your teen with your fears and worries.  Find other adults to talk to about those.

  • Encourage your teen to stay connected to others. Instead of isolating himself, he will be better off if he has people he can talk with and share thoughts and feelings.

  • Temporarily lower expectations of school and home performance. Your teen’s attention and emotional energy may be focused elsewhere for a few days or weeks.


previous: 7 Ways Parents Can Help


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