When Disaster Strikes: Talking to Children about Traumatic Events

Traumatic events can have profound effects not only on those who have been directly involved and influenced, but also on people close to those people and to witnesses.  Natural disasters, man-made crises such as car or plane accidents, or violent episodes like shootings or bombings happen all too often. 

The extensive media coverage that has become so prevalent in our world means that the circle of witnesses has expanded to include even those who were not present at the event.  The 24-hour news coverage results in graphic and immediate images of major national or world calamities being broadcast into our homes. 

It is becoming more and more difficult to prevent children from experiencing such disasters indirectly and vicariously through the media.

Large-scale tragedies can be extremely disturbing to children, who thrive on predictability and security.  When exposed to these catastrophic events, whether personally or through the media, children often display fears and anxieties that may seem extreme to adults.  Usually, these reactions are normal; however, without proper assurance, the impact of events like these can remain with children for a long time, even throughout their lives.  With the appropriate support and guidance, however, even very young children can become resilient enough to weather the most traumatic disaster, and grow even stronger from the experience.

The following information can help you to understand and ease your child’s fears and concerns.

Quick Tips

Love and Nurture Your Children

  • Express your love for your child more than usual, verbally and physically. Give plenty of hugs, even if your child doesn’t show outward signs of distress.
  • Be sensitive to the fact that your children are greatly influenced by your reactions. Try to remain calm when your children are around you.  Tell your children about your own feelings, but consider their age and maturity and be sure not to overwhelm them.
  • Be available to your children as much as possible when they need to talk about the disaster. You may want to save phone calls, texts, emails and social media activities for after your child’s bedtime so that you can be available to them and so they don’t get scared by your strong reactions to the event.
  • Remember that of all the things children/people need in times of crisis are opportunities to express thoughts and feelings.
  • Focus on your children’s feelings and thoughts, without judgment or suggestions.  When thinking about how to talk to them, take your lead from them in terms of what they need and what they are thinking and feeling.
  • Foster a sense of connection.  Stay close if possible. If you must leave, prepare the child well, assure him he will be safe and you will be back.
  • Look for signs of anxiety in your children, such as physical symptoms, a change in behavior, a reluctance to go to school, acting out or withdrawing, or increased clinginess.
  • Understand that children of different ages need different approaches to help them through the crisis.
    • Children, especially very young ones, are unrealistic and unable to understand complex and abstract concepts.
    • Children are very self-centered 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.
    • Children younger than 7 or 8 tend to think that if something goes wrong, it is their fault.   Be sure your child understands that he did not cause this trauma.

Reassure Your Children

  • As much as possible, maintain normal routines; they are reassuring during times of stress.
  • Bedtime needs to be calming; allow more time than usual for this transition, if needed.
  • Reassure your child that he, your family and community are safe, that you will protect him, and that events like this are rare.
  • Give a young child a comforting toy or something of yours to keep (a scarf, a photo, a note, etc.) Your child may be afraid of separating from you; keeping a reminder of you close by may help.
  • Encourage discussion or the expression of feelings. Allow anxieties to surface. Let your child know it is normal to feel worried or upset. Supply words if your child has difficulty labeling how he feels.
  • Share your own reactions, in moderation and without overwhelming your children with your feelings. Let them know that you share some of their concerns.
  • If appropriate to the situation and to the child, talk about safety measures your family and the children’s school have in place to keep your child safe.

Teach Your Children

  • Limit your child’s and your own exposure to media images of the crisis.
  • It is up to parents to interpret what has happened. Provide facts, in line with your child’s age and level of understanding. Keep your answers to your children’s questions simple and age-appropriate.
  • As much as you can, keep your children talking about what they are hearing and seeing. Let your child talk about what they think happened and how they are feeling.
  • Be patient when he asks the same questions many times over. Children often use repetition of information as a source of comfort and to make sense of what is happening. Try to be consistent with answers and information.
  • If older children seem very upset, suggest that they keep a journal of their reactions and feelings about what happened. They can then talk to you about what they wrote, if they want to.
  • Younger children can draw pictures and talk about what they drew or they can act out how they are feeling with puppets. You can read aloud from children’s books about difficult situations that the main characters have dealt with and survived.
  • Find ways for your child and family to become involved in helping activities, such as providing aid to victims, to lessen feelings of isolation, helplessness and powerlessness.
  • Teach children that people make mistakes and do harmful things, but being violent or killing people is never acceptable.
  • Help children understand that they are good people who would never commit such a destructive act, and that they are certainly not responsible for the disaster (as young children might think).
  • Tell your children about the heroes (police, firefighters, emergency rescue teams, everyday heroes who did extraordinary things in the face of the tragedy) who respond to the disaster and help get the situation under control afterwards. Explain how they are always there to help. Talk about ways the adult world was competent to take charge when the crisis occurred.

Get Your Own Needs Met: Address Your Own Concerns about the Event

  • Meet your need to process the situation by talking to other adults rather than burdening or overwhelming your children. Then you can be available to care for your children’s needs.

Children are Influenced by Their Parents’ Reactions

  • Children carefully watch parents to see how serious events are, how worried they should be, how much danger there might be around them.
  • Children often adopt the same feelings and behaviors as their parents.
  • Children who are very stressed may try to find ways to get parents to focus on them and away from the outside events that are taking parents’ attention away from them.
  • Remain calm and share your feelings to a limited degree so that you are focusing on your children’s needs and they do not become overwhelmed.

Provide Support

  • Express your love for your child more than usual, verbally and physically. Provide extra physical reassurance for younger children: hugs, sitting close to read together, and giving back rubs can help restore a child’s sense of safety and security.
  • Often what children need most is someone whom they trust who will listen to their questions and accept their feelings, and be there for them.  Don’t worry about knowing exactly the right thing to say – there is no answer that will make everything okay for now. Silence from you wont’ protect them from what is happening, but it will prevent them from understanding and coping with it.
  • Remember the importance of security and routine.
  • Reassure your child that he, your family and community are safe and that events such as this crisis are rare. Let your child know that there will always be someone there to protect and take care of him.
  • Talk about ways the adult world was competent to take charge when the crisis occurred, if this is relevant.
  • Maintain routines as much as possible. Keeping an unbroken sense of security and routine is one of the most important things you can provide for your children, who find comfort and safety in the routines and structure of their everyday lives. Encourage your child to participate in normal activities and keep the family routine as much as possible.
  • Give a young child a comforting toy or something of yours to keep (a scarf, a photograph of you, or a note from you). Your child may be afraid of separating from you; keeping a reminder of you close by may help.
  • Be available as much as you can for talking with and comforting your child. If you can, you may want to save phone calls, texts, emails and social media activity for after your child’s bedtime.
  • Foster a sense of connection – stay close. If you must leave, prepare the child well, assure him that he will be safe and you will be back.
  • Bedtime needs to be calming and reassuring; more time may be needed for this transitional activity.
  • Be available to children when they need to talk about the disaster.
  • Encourage discussion or the expression of feelings. Open and thoughtful communication with your child will comfort and reassure her. If you see signs of anxiety or believe that your child is reacting to a traumatic event, you can do any of the following to help him understand his feelings, decrease the sense of anxiety and decrease any symptomatic expression of the anxiety.
  • When thinking about how to talk to them, take your lead from your children in terms of what they need and what they are thinking and feeling. Ask your child what she thinks has happened. If she has any misconceptions, you can help to clarify the reality. If she knows upsetting details that are true, don’t deny them. Instead, listen carefully and let her talk about her fears:
    • “Tell me more about that.”
    • “Are there other things that are bothering you right now?”
    • “What have you heard about . . . .?”
    • “What do you think happened?”
  • Allow anxieties to surface. Resist minimizing your child’s anxieties, fears and concerns. The anxiety and any symptoms expressing it is a way for him to tell you that he feels sad, scared, helpless, etc. It is okay if your children get upset when talking about scary or distrubing things. As a parent, you can then reassure them and help them to feel safe and secure.   Reassure him by physical contact, embracing, hugging, talking to him, and accepting regressive behaviors. This behavior will subside when he feels safe again.
  • Help your child talk about the crisis by letting her know it is normal to feel worried or upset. Listen carefully to understand what she is really trying to say. Help her use words to describe her feelings, like “angry,” “sad,” “scared, etc. Putting their thoughts and experiences into words give children a sense of control.
  • If your children ask questions about safety, they are often really looking for reassurance that their immediate world of family and friends are safe now.  The amount of detail about security in the broader world that children will find useful will depend on their age.  Before responding, ask first what your children’s ideas are so that you can address the details of their concerns. Although we can’t give total reassurance, we can tell our children of our hopes that these kinds of tradegies will not happen again and that all the adults in their world are doing everything possible to keep them safe.
  • Be patient when your child asks you the same questions many times over. Children often use repetition of information as a source of comfort and to make sense of what is happening. Try to be consistent with answers and information.
  • For older children, suggest that they keep a journal of their reactions and feelings about the event.
  • If your child seems reluctant to talk, but you believe she is upset, you can do any of the following, depending on what you think your child would respond best to:
    • Ask her to draw pictures of what happened and talk about the pictures with her.
    • Encourage a young child to act out his feelings with puppets or toys. Don’t be alarmed if she expresses angry or scared feelings. Rather, use the play acting to begin a conversation about her worries and fears.
    • Suggest creative writing exercises for older children.
    • Read aloud from children’s books about difficult situations that the main characters have dealt with and survived.

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Understand Children

  • Respect that 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.

  • 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 such as stomach aches or headaches.
    • Behavioral changes such 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.
  • Appreciate that children often don’t know how to process their own 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 (see above: Signs of Increased Anxiety).  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.
      • Understand that children of different ages need different approaches. Each child needs special care to have his individual needs met according to his temperament, age and maturity.  Each child will have a personal way of absorbing information and expressing his feelings about it. Knowing each of your children will help you assess how much each child can take in and understand, how much to shelter and protect and how much information to disclose.
      • Infants depend totally on the adults who care for them.  They sense the emotions of their caregivers and react in repsonse. If the adult is calm and confident, the baby will feel secure; if the adult is anxious and overwhelmed, the baby will feel anxious and unsafe and may become fussy, may not become soothed when fretful, or have sleep or eating disorders.
      • Young children need special care. Toddlers and preschoolers have begun to interact with the broader environment but still depend oon their caretakers to interpret the events that are happening around them. As with infants, if the adult is calm, the child will feel secure; if not, the child will feel unprotected.
          Answer questions honestly but not in so much detail as to overwhelm and confuse the child’s limited ability to fully comprehend the situation.

Parents can understand specific worries of their preschoolers by listening to their comments and questions and observing their play and their behavior. Once they understand their children’s worries, they can answer questions, correct misunderstandings and offer reassurance.

Differentiate between family crises and losses that may need more discussion from those that are more global.

Exposure to television and media should be limited as much as possible. Children can be trauatized by images they cannot understand.

  • Appreciate the limits and abilities of elementary school age children.
    • They are better equipped to understand abstract concepts than younger children, and therefore can better comprehend the meanings behind the tragic events. You may be able to tell them more details about what happened and why.
    • Answer questions with accurate information and relate it 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 relatively safe, despite the crisis.
    • They may also need to be shielded from some or all of the media images and information, and if they are exposed to the media, an adult should be present to discuss what has been seen and heard.
    • School-aged children may visit their concerns briefly, but then turn to play or do schoolwork rather than letting themselves feel overwhelmed and to scared. Paying attention to changes in behavior and mood as well as asking about children’s ideas are ways to recognize whether and when they have concerns about what happened.
  • Older children may still need special care and attention.
    • Pre-adolescents and adolescents may be able to 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 to process the information about the event or disaster without becoming overly anxious. These children 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 a teen’s behavior might indicate high levels of distress.
    • Forcing adolescents to talk about their feelings may cause more harm than good; instead, make sure your teen has a variety of opportunities to talk to people they are comfortable with and who are able to help your teen to process his feelings,when he is ready. Just because your teen hasn’t said something about the traum doesn’t mean he isn’t affected by it.
    • 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.  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.
    • When you talk about what happened, be honest. 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 traum is affecting you, admit your feelings, but don’t burden your teen with your fears and worries.  Find other adutls to talk to about those.
    • Encourage your teen to stay connected to others instead of isolating himself.
    • 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.

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Tell your Children about the Heroes who Bring Disasters under Control

Explain how police, firefighters, emergency rescue teams, everyday heroes who did extraordinary things in the face of the disaster are always there to help. Talk about ways the adult world was competent to take charge when the crisis occurred, and helped to bring order afterwards. Encourage your children to use these heroes as role models and let them know that when they are adults they to will be able to help people and make a difference in the world. Parents can explain the qualities that make someone a hero and point out that anyone can be a hero by putting aside personal needs to reach out to help others in need.

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Have your child and family become involved in helping activities

  • Doing something to help, lessens feelings of isolation, helplessness and powerlessness.
  • This can bring a sense of control and hope to your children.
  • Write letters to people who have helped abate the crisis.
  • Join the possible efforts of religious or community organizations to contribute to those directly affected by the crisis.

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Limit your Child’s Exposure to Media Images of the Tragedy

With the advent of 24 hours news coverage, it is possible to watch the same traumatic events over and over again, each time traumatizing the viewer anew. The media may also have the effect of exaggerating the fears of viewers. Children may believe that each time they see an image of the event, it is really happening again and again. They also may misinterpret the images and the commentary due to their limited capacity to understand abstract principles and concepts. Shield your child from the graphic details and pictures in the media.

If your school-aged and older children are interested in watching the news about the tragedy, watch with them when you can so that you can talk about what you have seen and heard.

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Get Your Needs Met: Address Your Own Concerns About the Disaster

  • Get enough sleep, eat balanced meals, try to keep to regular routines.
  • Seek support from other adults. This may be a time to reach out to others to give support, to receive support, to discuss issues and reactions. Because you may also be responding to the crisis, it is very important for you to talk to other parents and friends. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • Give yourself time to reflect on what has happened.
  • If you need to talk more, express more, discuss more than your children can handle, seek out other adults to process how you are feeling. Don’t burden your children with your fears and worries.
  • Your children may need you to be available to help them process what is going on for them, even though you may want to stop talking or thinking about the traumatic event. In this case, identify another caring adult who is able to listen to your children about the tragedy, and you can get the break you need.
  • Remember that children often overhear adult conversations when parents think they are not listening; monitor your conversations with other adults when your children are nearby.

We would like to thank Diane Wagenhals of Lakeside Educational Network and the National Parent-Teacher Association for their contributions to this article.
 
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