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At some time or another, your child is going to experience an event that is distressing, overwhelming, and deeply disturbing- or as we simply call it, “traumatic.” As Peter Levine puts it in Trauma-Proofing Your Kids, “The bad news is that trauma is a fact of life. The good news is that so is resilience.” From accidents and medical procedures to bullying, violence, and natural disasters- scary things happen. 

Luckily, children (and all humans) are innately resilient- they have the incredible ability to bounce back from an overwhelming event. Moreover, parents can help their children avoid becoming traumatized from the experience. 

Below are some things parents can do to mitigate the emotional impact and overwhelm of a traumatic incident on their child. 

Give Your Child An Accurate, Age-Appropriate Explanation  

Talk to your child about what happened in a calm, age-appropriate manner. Use words, language, and concepts that they can understand. Parents often try overprotecting their children by providing inaccurate or incomplete information, avoiding answering hard questions, or refraining from giving any information at all. When children are not given an accurate narrative of the event, they will believe their own interpretation of what happened, which is often much scarier than the truth. 

Let’s look at Sara, age four for example. She was at her Aunt’s house when Aunt Mimi had stepped outside to get the mail and hadn’t come back. After another few minutes passed, Sara’s mom rushed in and whisked Sara into the car, amidst a crowd of ambulances and police cars. 

Mom cried the whole car ride home as Sara pestered her for an explanation. In truth, Mimi had died in a tragic hit and run at the curb of her home. Mom, reeling from the tragic loss of her sister, thought it was best to shield young Sara from the truth. 

She finally told Sara, “Mimi got hurt. We’re not going to see her; she is not here anymore.” Days and weeks passed. Sara’s mom began noticing that Sara refused to let anyone leave her side, cried hysterically at the sight of even the smallest cut or scrape, and strangely refused to let her family go out through the front door. 

Imagine what Sara must have learned from her confusing experience, leading to these behaviors. 1) When people get hurt, they disappear. I’d better not let myself get hurt, or I’ll disappear too! 2) The front door is dangerous- people get hurt and disappear when they go out that way. We must avoid using it at all costs. 3) If I let a grownup leave the room they may never come back. 

The truth, tragic as it was, would be more helpful and healthy for Sara. 

Avoid Euphemisms

Euphemisms such as “she is in a better place,” “she’s not with us anymore,” “she’s gone,” or even, “we lost Aunt Mimi” are confusing to children. Honesty is truly the best policy. 

When it comes to death in particular, many parents avoid telling their child the truth because their child has no previous concept of death. Death is an inevitable part of the life cycle and should be spoken about before it is urgently necessary (i.e. a family member or friend dies).

Look out for my upcoming blog post for more detailed information on this topic.

The reality of death is a lot easier to accept than the possibility of people disappearing into thin air, or being whisked away forever when they get hurt. Likewise, the reality of mom being sick in the hospital is easier to process than simply hearing “mom went away for a while. She’ll be back.”  Children need to hear the truth so they can process what happened and move on in the best way. 

A Timely Example: COVID19

When Coronavirus first hit, many parents were so focused by rearranging schedules and adjusting to the new reality, that they neglected to clue in their children to what was actually going on. Children returned home from school one day, to be told they were not returning for the foreseeable future. 

When given no explanation as to what was happening in the world around them, they came to their own conclusions. This is what all humans do. We try to make sense of the world around us. So, to a five-year-old, school closing indefinitely can mean: we have no more money for school, or perhaps the school doesn’t want me there anymore, or maybe the teachers are all sick, or perhaps school is not safe anymore. 

With COVID19, withholding this important information also meant jeopardizing their safety. Without knowledge of the virus, children could not know the importance of safety measures such as the importance of social distancing and washing their hands.

Sadly, so many children experienced a parent or grandparent being admitted to the hospital, and many experienced a family member’s deaths. As of this writing, more than 182,000 people died from COVID19 in the United States. For children in these families, imagine the advantage of age-appropriate information about the virus, and about their family member’s specific situation. 

Shielding a child from the truth means more shock and overwhelm for the child later on when they find out. Providing accurate information from the beginning helps children process current events as well as whatever happens next. 

Acknowledge and Validate Your Child’s Feelings 

Another important task for parents after an overwhelming event is to acknowledge and validate their child’s emotional experience. Avoid telling children how they should or should not feel. Refrain from statements such as “don’t be scared” or “don’t cry.” These statements tell the child that there is something wrong with their emotional experience and that it needs to be shut down. 

Everyone handles grief, loss, and trauma in different ways. It’s best for parents to recognize and welcome crying as the healthy emotional release that it is. Maintain a calm and loving presence for your child as they process what happened. Communicate that you are there for them and any feelings that they have, and reiterate the fact that they are safe and okay now.

Parents: Take Care of Yourself

Seek out support so you can be there for your child. It’s so important for parents to check in with their own emotional experience. Validate your own emotions.  As a parent, you also need to process your experience, whether through writing, talking, or art. 

Like your child, your behavior is a reflection of your own internal process. If you are running around on-alert and on-edge you are sending your child signals that everything is not in fact okay (even if you are verbally assuring them otherwise). Children cannot heal if the present moment still feels scary and unpredictable. 

Remember, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Self-care goes a long way for both you and your child. 

The Takeaway

By giving your child accurate information, validating their emotions, and taking care of yourself, you can help your child bounce back from traumatic experiences. Just because an event is traumatic (overwhelming, distressing, and scary), does not need to mean that your child will become traumatized.

If you need help talking to your child about what happened or think they may benefit from therapy, please reach out to me! I offer parent support and trauma therapy, to help parents and children through difficult times.