Talking to kids about traumatic events

Talking to Kids about Traumatic Events

Hello brave parents and caregivers! I hope this post finds you with a sense of renewal in the new year. If you are like our family, we’ve been processing the grief, shock, and disbelief of Damar Hamlin’s collapse in the Bengals vs. Bills game on January 2nd. My daughter, a diehard Bengals fan forced by her mean mother to go to bed early that night, barraged me the next morning demanding a play-by-play account of the game. As I questioned what and how much to tell her, I realized that many parents are probably grappling with this same question, particularly those with children who witnessed the event.

It’s Okay to Talk About It

When it comes to a distressing or traumatic event, talk about it. Many of us are inclined not to talk about upsetting things and may think that hiding our feelings or saying nothing protects our children. But when we avoid talking about something upsetting, we are actually communicating to our children that they too shouldn’t talk about it or that if they do they will make us sad. This creates more worry for children and discourages them from telling us how they feel. In some cases, kids may begin to imagine even worse scenarios that are not in keeping with reality. If you create a safe space for kids to talk about distressing events, it creates an opportunity for you to provide accurate information and for your kids to share their feelings.


But How Should I Talk About It?

Parents can create a safe space for talking when they are honest, open, and comfortable with their own feelings. Communicate that you are sincerely interested in listening to your child’s thoughts and feelings and take her lead; let her know you that you are open and available to talk whenever she is ready. Keep in mind that children may have mixed, unexpected, and varied feelings about an upsetting event, and it’s important to validate their feelings, whatever they may be, in a sympathetic and nonjudgmental manner.              


Keep in mind that each child is an individual who will respond to a traumatic event in a different way. How to communicate with a child about trauma depends on his developmental age and experience. I like “developmental age” because children and adolescents may be more or less mature than their chronological age.  You know your child best.


Use simple, age-appropriate language, such as, “Mr. Hamlin’s heart was injured during the game. He is in the hospital and the doctors are trying to fix it”. Drawing on familiar experiences of other family members who have experienced hospitalization may be helpful. Keep it brief with understandable responses that do not confuse or overwhelm and avoid confronting your child with information they are not capable of processing or ready to hear.  Remain honest and accept that it’s okay that you do not have all the answers. If your child asks if Mr. Hamlin will be okay, it’s fine to respond with, “I don’t know the answer to that one just yet.” Telling well-intentioned little lies to protect your child or to mitigate your own discomfort may foster distrust between you and your child. Children learn by repetition, so be prepared to repeat information as your child processes what has happened and check in to ensure he understands what you have communicated.


Children’s Reactions

Because children may not have the cognitive ability to grasp cause-and-effect relationships, it’s natural for them to experience guilt or a sense of responsibility about a distressing event. They may wonder, for instance, if it was their angry thoughts that caused it. Staying mindful of this and providing reassurance that it was not their fault and that they are and always will be loved can help them cope with these feelings. After a distressing event, children may also experience anger, sadness, irritability, nightmares, and/or aggression, or they may withdraw or temporarily regress into an earlier stage of development (e.g., the emergence of bedwetting in a toilet-trained child). Children who have internalized their feelings may experience physical symptoms such as loss of appetite, headache, stomachache, and/or sleep problems. Young children may process their feelings through play, such as acting out a satisfactory ending to a scary event as a means to gain a sense of mastery over what has happened and to decrease their anxiety. Play is the natural language of children and is an adaptive way to work through their feelings.


What Else Can I Do?

As a parent, getting comfortable with your own feelings about a distressing event while modulating your stress response to it can be helpful in creating space for your child to communicate his feelings. Despite resistance, especially in adolescents, try to maintain family closeness, sending the message that you are there for them and available to listen when they need you.  Children and adolescents need to feel safe after witnessing or experiencing a distressing event. Maintain your typical routines, rules, and expectations to provide them with an ongoing sense of reassurance and security. Limit media exposure to reduce the possibility traumatization, re-traumatization, or the development of an unhealthy preoccupation with the incident.  


When processing traumatic events, it may be therapeutic for children to find ways to express caring, such as by writing letters to hospitalized patients. For older children and adolescents who are processing Mr. Hamlin’s collapse, for instance, learning CPR may help them gain a sense of control and proactiveness, which, in turn, can help them cope with feelings of anxiety or helplessness. Explore these possibilities with your children and follow their lead as to what may be of interest or help to them.


Parents and caregivers, you know your child best. If he is struggling after witnessing Mr. Hamlin’s collapse or after experiencing or witnessing any distressing or traumatic event, please seek consultation with your pediatrician or with a mental health professional.


Finally, for young children who have witnessed or experienced a traumatic event, I’d recommend Margaret M. Holmes’s book, A Terrible Thing Happened, which tells the story of the feelings a raccoon experiences after witnessing an unidentified terrible thing. This thoughtful book is a great tool to open a dialogue with children who have experienced trauma and it includes an afterword with helpful insights and suggestions for parents and caregivers.


Until next time, brave parents and caregivers. With prayers and support for Damar Hamlin’s continued recovery,


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