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Talking to Your Children About Traumatic Events

In the wake of the recent traumatic events at Virginia Tech, I have been inundated with requests from parents, as well as, news and radio stations to talk about what is the best way to talk to children about the issues of cold and cruel acts of violence, murder, terror and aggression. When a disaster or tragedy occurs, adults and children alike are scared and confused. As parents, we are trying to deal with our own shock while simultaneously trying to help our kids. In my experience, the underlying fear of most children and adults are Am I safe? Are the people I love in danger? How can I protect my loved ones? Why do people do such bad things?

After a traumatic event, its hard to escape the siege of graphics and comprehensive details that are posted all over the net, the news, and in the newspapers. Seeing the traumatic events replayed over and over again is highly stressful. It's important to monitor your child's (and your own) exposure to media coverage as best you can. Parents wonder how much imformation to give to their kids. Depending on the age of your children, they are going to hear all about the events from TV, the radio, friends and at school. It's vital that you are in the loop and remain an important resource and contributor to the information they have. The key is to engage in open discussions that address your children's fears, concerns and questions. Below are some tips to guide you to help your children and yourself through coping after a traumatic event.

Talking to Your Child

Look for an opportunity to start a discussion and LISTEN


Find a quiet place and time to speak to your children and to be available to answer questions.
Find out what your child already knows.
Ask your child how he or she feels about what she has seen and heard.
Listen and give your child room to talk openly about his or her perceptions, thoughts and feelings without judgment or suggestions.
It's important to understand what your child is internalizing. What is important, confusing and troublesome to your child. (When kids rely on one another for news, they are likely to come home with some wild rumors and scary misinformation. This becomes a source of real worry).
The level of stress your child is experiencing may be heightened in relation to other stresses that are currently going on or have previously been experienced (i.e. marital breakup, loss of a pet, witnesses to a violent act).


Addressing Your Children's Feelings and Fears

Remain calm. This is reassuring and models for your kids how to handle stressful situations.
Do not dismiss any feelings. Children feel embarrassed or criticized when their fears are minimized.
Reassure your child that they safe and protected and being taken care of.
Counter the 'what if's' fears by offering reliable, honest information. Children should be told what is realistic and what is not.
Provide honest and direct information about what has occurred that is consistent with your child's age and maturity.
Do not give more information than your child is asking for. After finding out what they know, address the questions they have.
Children process traumatic events at their own pace. Provide an opportunity for your child to talk about the issue as much as they need to in a single session, As new questions or issues arise, discussions should be ongoing on an as-needed basis.


Signs and Symptoms to Be Aware of

Kids don't always demonstrate their feelings directly so parents should pay special attention to signs of concern or distress
Notice if there is a significant interference with daily life, in school, at home or with peers. The following physical and/or emotional signs could be red flags of a deeper disturbance that needs to be addressed.

Changes in eating and appetite.
Sleep disturbance (sleeping too much or too little, difficulty falling asleep, nightmares)
Increased Physical Complaints (headaches, stomachaches)
Increased sensitivity to sights, sounds, or other stimuli related to event
Significant changes in relationships with family and/or friends
Aggressive behavior and outbursts
Overly focused on issues of safety
Shift in activity level and interests
Regression to behavior of a younger child (clinging, whining, sucking thumb)



Isolation. Wanting to be alone.
Heightened fear and anxiety
Easily startled and jumpy
Depressed, sad, lethargic
Irritable and shortfused
Memory loss and/or loss of concentration
Kids who have emotional problems or have previously experienced trauma may be particularly vulnerable to distress.


Your Child's Reactions Variables

Your child's reactons may vary according to:

Level of exposure to the event. (A personal loss involved, how close to home
Child's age and ability to understand what happened.
Personality style
Level of anxiety prior to event
A resulting change in lifestyle or living situation
Other losses and traumas experienced


What Parents Can Do for their Kids

Maintain Routine and Structure. Resume normal activities. This helps to restore a sense of normalcy and safety.
Reassure your child about their safety.
Take time to talk and listen.
Be selective about how much exposure your child has to the replay of events.
Your reactions influence your child's reactions.
Acknowledge outloud what is good in the world.
Honor life. Celebrate your family. Eat a good healthy meal together, go for a walk, throw a ball, go to the park.
Spend extra time with your children.
Watch a funny movie or play a favorite game together.

Turn any sense of powerlessness into action: (Light a candle for those who have died. Plant a flower or tree. Say a prayer together. )

Spend extra time with your children.


What Parents Can Do for Themselves

Events that are traumatizing and highly stressful affect you too. In addition to taking care of your kids, it's imporant to take extra special care of yourself right now. Afterall, to be a solid and stable anchor for them, you need to be solid from the inside out.

Here are some suggestions:

Give yourself time to heal.
Reconnect with your own sense of safety in the world.
What makes you safe in the world? What gives you comfort.
Focus on your competency.
Go easy on yourself. Be more gentle and loving. Be realistic about the demands you put on yourself.
Get Plenty of sleep, eat well, exercise
Write out your feelings
Write down your specific worries and an antidote for preventing or fixing the situation.
Take slow deep breaths from your belly.
Give yourself a treat--a warm bath, a massage, something that makes you feel good when you are sad or upset.
Acknowledge your own contribution to making the world a better place (your smile, your hug, cooking special meals, listening, being a friend, a good parent)
Ask for and provide support. Talk to other adults who can understand what you are feeling and going through.


Traumatic events that take us by surprise shake and stir us to the core. It's important to maintain regular routines to restore balance, take extra special care of yourself and your family. Spend more time together appreciating the good things in life. And, a little extra hugging and kissing couldn't hurt!

Blessings and love,


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