When tragedy hits, whether on the national front or in your own backyard, it is natural to feel confused and unsure about what to tell your kids and exactly how you should tell them.
We have had no shortage of national tragedies lately. Sandy Hook was just one of the many violent events last year which left many people horrified and fearful.
Traumatic events happen, and while events like Sandy Hook are exceedingly rare, the low-level chronic stress in our families that leads to the experience of trauma - is not. Whatever level of stress or trauma you are facing, it is important to keep your focus on how you want to respond rather than on the reactionary behaviors of others.
If you can resist the knee-jerk reaction to obsess in the fear and drama that surrounds us during traumatic times, you are more likely to leave your children with the tools to build resilience and emotionally healthy responses. You also provide a buffer to the fear-based paradigm of doom-and-gloom, negative attitudes that can invade our peace.
Divorce, illness, separation from a parent, death, or violence in the world - whatever the trauma - big or little - parents want advice. So, I teamed up with my friend and colleague, Temple University professor and Foster Care Examiner Dr. Sue Cornbluth, for a free teleseminar on this topic!
Here are some of the tips we share on this call -
There are many types of traumatic events but if the tragedy is a national or world event then the first tip is keep the tube OFF.
1. Limit Media Exposure
The images kids see are not processed in the same way that adults process images. If the news is on and replaying images of traumatized families or violence, then younger children may get the impression that something bad is happening again.
Kids are ruled by the images in their heads - nightmares, fear of being alone and hyper-arousal can occur because the images are too graphic for them.
2. Talking & Listening
Just because kids don't speak about it doesn't mean they aren't thinking about it or having feelings around it. Talk to your kids and ask questions that are open-ended or share your feelings.
Don't lay it all out in detail or try to interrogate them about how they feel. Be mindful of when your children are around and limit your conversations about the event regardless of whether you are on the phone or sharing in person.
Kids do listen to what we're talking about even if we think they are not.
Do not deny, discount or invalidate their emotion or experience with, "Oh that would never happen to you" or "Don't worry." I don't believe in distracting kids away from what they are feeling. That only leads to negative behaviors arising from stored emotions.
Validate Validate Validate
Empathize Empathize Empathize
3. Play is Healing
Especially with younger children, play is a great way to work out any stress or anxiety about things they may fear or worry about. Some kids who may have inadvertently been exposed to more information than they can emotionally process may need extra attention as you reassure them that they are safe.
Reach your children through an emotionally connecting experience - like play. Role-play with dolls, animals, or dinosaurs etc. or try dramatic play with costumes and singing to give a voice to stored emotions.
With older children, playing a game of cards or going on a favorite outing or connecting through a shared hobby are ways to get your kids talking about the things that may be troubling them.
4. Offer Help
Instead of your absolute assurance that everything is fine, ask, "What can I do to help you feel safe?" Recognize that there may be some regression or neediness or clinginess. If so, plan a family event to reconnect - game night or a slumber party in mom and dad's room or a sleepover with cousins or friends.
5. Teach Body Intelligence
Stressful times and traumatic events offer an invaluable chance to teach body intelligence. This helps move kids from the abstract concept of a feeling to connecting it to what they recognize happening in their bodies.
Having an awareness of how our systems operate give us the ability to re-set ourselves before we reach our breaking point.
Ask your kids:
"Where do you feel those feelings in your body?"
Then bring their attention to those parts of their bodies and inquire about those feelings in sensory terms.
"Give them a color - if your feelings were a color -what color would they be?"
"Do they have a shape?"
"If your emotions were a person - what would they look like?"
Young children may need lots of practice and support, but if you are consistent with providing attention and stress management tools to guide their emotional processing, then by the time they reach adulthood, they will have mastered the mind-body process.
Older kids may want to explore a traumatic event more deeply. They may have an interest in talking about the details or asking questions about how or why this could happen. A more mature child, depending on the temperament and personality, may want to seek answers or dissect the reactions or decisions of the people concerned.
Some kids may become very angry or depressed or sad about an event - even if it didn't touch them personally. It is important not to dismiss or deny your child's feelings or interest. You just may have a budding detective, criminologist, psychologist, or film director on your hands.
The point is that whatever perspective your child takes is right for him - but if you start to notice that the stress or residual effects of the trauma are interfering with your child's daily activities, interests or mood - then it is time to look deeper and seek help.
Want more tips for talking to your kids after tragedy - click here to catch my replay with Dr. Sue where we talk about all this and more!