How do you talk to your Kids about Trauma?
By George Faller, LMFT
Trauma is an event where there is a threat to one’s self or others and evokes feelings of terror, helplessness, and loss. It results in distrust, disorganization, and scrambled signals. It is not the nature of the event, but the subjective experience that is key.
What influences our experience of an event are several factors, including our previous experience, how close we were to the event (proximity), what happens afterwards (what kind of support we receive), and what other stresses come as a result of this event.
For those who have been through a trauma, symptoms can include hyper-arousal or edginess, flashbacks to the event, or avoidance. The two trauma traps of avoidance and hyper-arousal are short-term solutions that end up reinforcing the trauma.
Interventions are not “one size fits all” for those affected by a tragedy. Most treatment models work to help the person get stabilized and work through his/her feelings and reactions to what took place, with the goal of helping him/her to integrate this experience into his/her life story. The way into this process is started by validating the symptoms or defenses the person is using to cope. As parents, you can do this, then be flexible and tailor to your children and their needs. Often parents are too cautious in talking to their children, while others feel they have to provide too much detail beyond what the child is asking. One of my sons asked me a question I hadn’t considered until that point, “Dad, do you think it hurt when the children were shot?” I told him, “I think it probably did, son.” He didn’t have any more questions and was ready to move on from the conversation.
You want to talk about trauma adjusted to age. Typically with younger ones, less details and more global is best. Find out what they know. You want to focus on safety, reassurance, patience, consistency, and routines.
The concern about doing too much is the well-intentioned parent who tries to fix the child’s fear and comes up with an action plan. For that family it may be bad timing and increase anxiety.
The key is not your intention but how it lands on your child. Some children want to hear that kids are now in heaven while others don’t want to hear about God.
Realize kids’ brains grow from attuning to their environment. They know what’s going on. Trying to protect them often is a missed opportunity of shared connections. You can role model that it was hard or difficult news but without requiring your children to feel like they have to take care of you in it.
Finally, there is some good news for parents in this. The best predictor of positive outcome is having supportive, available people around us as we cope with a traumatic experience. When the timing is right, focus on resiliency – experiences of people rallying – not euphemisms.
If trauma floods us with fear and helplessness then a secure connection is the antidote, soothing us and offering comfort.