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Talking to Kids about Traumatic Experiences

Be calm and clear. Children absorb your emotions along with your words.  

Harold S. Koplewicz, MD

Child Mind Institute

I received an email last week from a mother who is a survivor of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. She described to me how one week after the attacks she’d learned she was pregnant. “Fast forward nine years,” she wrote. “I want to know how and when to tell my son what I went through.” 

This mother is hardly alone: Many parents worry about how to explain painful or disturbing experiences to their kids. So here are eight rules for talking to kids about trauma.  

Rule 1: Know your child. 
 All the other rules in this list follow from this first rule: that how we talk about traumatic events should be adjusted for age and an individual child’s temperament. Young children can usually take in only small amounts of information, and sensitive children, particularly those with anxiety, are prone to feeling threatened when hearing of violence that has in any way disrupted a parent’s life. Let what you know about your child guide how you share your experiences.

Rule 2: Find out what your child already knows. 
Before telling your son about a traumatic experience, ask what he already knows about it. “What have you heard about September 11?” you might ask. “What have your friends said about it?” Kids learn more from their peers than we think they do. Knowing what your child has been told will help you determine which details to include—and what confusions need to be cleared up—when you tell your story.

Rule 3: Focus on resilience. 
You can help your child feel safer by framing the story of a trauma like 9/11 to include how New Yorkers and, indeed, people all over the country rallied to help and support those who had lost loved ones, and how our leaders took steps to prevent this kind of attack from happening again. If this is a teachable moment, the lesson might be that bad things do happen but we can learn from them—we become wiser and better able to protect ourselves.

Rule 4: Tell your story calmly. 
If you talk to your child about traumatic experiences in a highly emotional way, then he will likely absorb your emotion and very little else. If, on the other hand, you remain calm, he is likely to grasp what’s important: that what happens in the world can upset our lives, even deeply, but we can learn from bad experiences and work together to recover and even grow stronger. A child who lives with a distressed parent often learns to be apprehensive. A child who lives with a resilient parent tends to show confidence and faith in the face of adversity.

Rule 5: Let your child “fill in the blanks.” 
You don’t need to include every detail. Kids use their imagination to fill in the blanks—so unless they imagine something that causes them anxiety, there’s no reason to correct them. Respect their feelings and ideas. Encourage them to form their own opinions.

Rule 6: Explain safety in logical, concrete terms. 
We can’t offer our kids a logical explanation for why terrorism occurs, but we can reassure them that we’ve taken logical steps to prevent future attacks. To an 8-year-old boy, a mother might say, “After September 11, our president made sure that we’d be more safe and secure.” And then personalize the message: “Do you remember taking off your shoes and passing through the metal detector at the airport? Everyone who travels on airplanes must do what you did. Metal detectors are there to ensure that people never bring anything on a plane that would enable them to take over or destroy it.”

Rule 7: Keep explanations of your emotions brief. 
Most survivors of trauma, even if they’ve recovered from their psychological pain, have very intense emotions about what they’ve experienced. Kids can’t grasp the enormity or meaning of those emotions, even if we as parents sometimes wish they could. If you’ve gone through something traumatic, you can briefly explain your feelings to your child. But then return the focus to his feelings. You might ask the question, “How do you feel about this?” or “What worries you?”

Rule 8: Help children take constructive action. 
Children typically learn the most by doing. One of the most effective ways to teach your child resilience is through volunteering. By taking constructive action —working with a group to help others or raising money—kids learn the healing role of empathy and social responsibility. Last year President Obama designated September 11 a national day of service and remembrance. So if you haven’t already established a routine of volunteering with your child, next September 11 would be the perfect date to get started. 

Published: February 10, 2011

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