Speaking with Children about Trauma
Posted on September 11, 2018 by CHS
Children are frequently exposed to violence. They may see it on the news, in their neighborhood, in movies, and in popular games. Exposure to violence can cause children to become fearful or traumatized. When parents talk to children about scary things on the news or violent events they may have seen or heard about, children have the opportunity to express their concerns, ask questions, and be reassured by a trusted adult. It can feel awkward to speak with children about violence, trauma, mental health, and suicide, but your guidance can help them understand what is happening and cope with it in a positive way.
What is Trauma?
The Oxford Living Dictionary defines trauma as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” The American Psychological Association defines a traumatic event as “one that threatens injury, death, or the physical integrity of self or others and also causes horror, terror, or helplessness at the time it occurs. Traumatic events include sexual abuse, physical abuse, domestic violence, community and school violence, medical trauma, motor vehicle accidents, acts of terrorism, war experiences, natural and human-made disasters, suicides, and other traumatic losses.” Other examples of trauma include the death of a loved one; going through a family separation such as a divorce or military deployment; being cared for by a parent who suffers from substance abuse, depression, or other mental illness; and more. Children who experience trauma once can usually cope with the support of their family, but children who experience trauma on a regular basis can feel the effects of trauma throughout adulthood.
Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris drew attention to the research that has been done on how trauma effects children in a 2014 TED Talk. The study in trauma that first interested Dr. Burke-Harris was initially done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente. The name of the study was Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). The ACEs study looked at the effects of abuse, neglect, and family/household challenges (substance abuse, incarceration, and mental health illness in parents). Adults answered health questionnaires about the trauma they had experienced in their childhood. Each question resulted in a number score.
Doctors found that each time the ACEs score for a person (number of traumatic events experienced) increased, so did their number of physical and mental health issues. For the first time there was substantial research showing that childhood trauma can affect the long term health of adults, resulting in early deaths from heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer. The study also discovered that childhood trauma is more common than most people think, and it affects people from all cultures and economic backgrounds. You can read more about the work Dr. Burke-Harris is doing to heal trauma from ACEs on the Center for Youth Wellness website, or in her book The Deepest Well.
If your child experiences a traumatic event, you might notice some of the following signs:
- Acting fearful of things that were not a problem before
- Anxiety about being separated from you
- Nightmares and trouble sleeping
- Displaying sadness or anger
- No interest in usual activities
- Lack of focus
- Beginning to do poorly in school
Use the tips below to talk to your child, and if you do not see improvement after a couple of weeks you should consult your child’s doctor or a professional counselor. To learn more about trauma, click here.
Time to Talk about Trauma
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” – Fred Rogers
After a child experiences trauma, it is important that he feel safe and protected. Once you are in a safe location and the situation has calmed down, you can have your first talk about what happened. Whether the traumatic event was witnessing a crime, being injured in an accident, or another violent event, the National Association of School Psychologists recommends these tips for helping children cope with trauma that is a result of disaster or violence:
- Let children know that they are safe and encourage them to talk about their thoughts and feelings. Some children may not want to talk about the event right away. Let them know you are available to talk any time and refrain from pushing them to talk before they are ready.
- Explain the event as clearly, simply, and honestly as you can. As you explain, watch children’s reactions and pause frequently in case they have questions. Allow the conversation to develop around children’s emotional reactions and concerns. Clarify information for those children who may have difficulty separating what really happened from what they imagine happened. This will help the children feel heard and build a feeling of trust between you.
- Remind children of the safety rules and precautions that exist to protect them. For example, fire drills, emergency exits, fire extinguishers, teachers, police officers, fire fighters, and more. Ask them if they can think of new rules or ideas for staying safe. This can help children feel like they have control over their own safety. Help children identify the people they can turn to when they need help.
- Limit media devices that may be broadcasting news about the event and be mindful of conversations with other adults that take place in front of children.
- Return to a normal daily routine as quickly as possible. The consistency and stability of a familiar routine will help children feel things are safe and back to normal. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep and eating well.
- Encourage children to engage in creative pursuits to release any tension or stress they may be feeling. They can draw pictures, write in a journal, play music, or take photos of nature.
For more resources about talking to children about trauma, grief, mental illness, substance abuse, or disasters, please view the resources below.
References and Resources
- Brief Facts and Tips about Grief: http://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources/school-safety-and-crisis/addressing-grief
- Protecting Children from Screen Violence: http://www.fredrogerscenter.org/2014/10/protecting-children-from-extreme-screen-violence/
- Sesame Street Grief Toolkit for Families: https://www.sesamestreet.org/toolkits/grief
- Talking to Children about Disasters: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/emotional-wellness/Pages/Talking-to-Children-about-Disasters.aspx
- Talking to Children about Suicide: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwjv8qLlvoHdAhWrwFQKHarsA3cQFjABegQICRAC&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.pfw.edu%2FdotAsset%2F6cc30b55-4cc1-4da2-b227-abcf0e9ad355.pdf&usg=AOvVaw2D2ePlOwiTYszoLnb90j9q
- Talking to Children about Tragedies and News Events: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/Media/Pages/Talking-To-Children-About-Tragedies-and-Other-News-Events.aspx
- The Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children and Families: https://www.dougy.org/
- The How and Why of Trauma Informed Teaching: https://www.edutopia.org/article/how-and-why-trauma-informed-teaching?utm_source=Edutopia+Newsletter&utm_campaign=17d1f60946-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_081518_enews_thehowandwhy&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f72e8cc8c4-17d1f60946-79140691
- When It’s Time to Discuss a Family Member’s Mental Illness or Alcohol/Drug Problem: http://www.heretohelp.bc.ca/visions/parenting-vol2/talking-to-children-and-youth
- When Your Parents Fight (written for children to read): https://kidshealth.org/en/kids/family-fights.html?WT.ac=ctg#cathome-family
Related CHS Publications:
- Family Education Program Brochures: https://www.chs-ca.org/family-education-program/brochures
- Family Education Program Podcasts: https://www.chs-ca.org/podcasts
- Grief, Loss, and Trauma in Children blog: https://www.chs-ca.org/blog/entry/grief-loss-and-trauma-in-children
- Mental Health in Young Children blog: https://www.chs-ca.org/blog/entry/mental-health-in-young-children
- National Suicide Prevention Week blog: https://www.chs-ca.org/blog/entry/national-suicide-prevention-week