Talking with children about traumatic events
Making Families Grand
I was running a large child care center serving infants through school age kids when the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School occurred. Many of my teachers had heard about the tragedy during their lunch break and the mood in our break room was very somber and full of fear. Several parents came and picked their children up early, also full of fear and anxiety, and in some cases crying. As the afternoon went on we noticed that the children in the program, from the very youngest to the very oldest, were more clingy and tearful, wanted to be close to teachers, and were more aggressive with each other. Even without knowing what was going on they could sense that the important people in their lives were scared. As those children went home that night, many saw images on the news of children, just like them, running away from their school, heard the death toll counts, and knew something bad had happened in a place that is supposed to be safe.
Like Sandy Hook, the recent events in France, Colorado Springs, and San Bernadino, may leave us as adults feeling increased stress and fear. It is important to remember that our children may also experience these feelings as they over hear conversations, see images on the news, or hear stories from the radio. However, unlike adults, young children have a limited ability to understand and process what the frightening things they are seeing and hearing.
The National Traumatic Stress Network highlights that media exposure to traumatic events can increase fears and anxiety in young children. Children who witness a traumatic event, even just seeing it on TV, may become whiny, clingy, have a greater fear of separation, change sleeping and eating habits, harder to comfort and reassure, and may return to earlier self-soothing behaviors. As the media replays the event over and over children may think it is happening over and over. They also may not understand that the event is happening miles away, but instead may feel like it is occurring in their own neighborhood or community. Young children can be very aware of the crisis or traumatic event that is happening but with little ability to process where it is occurring, in what order, and how they should respond. It is up to the adults to help children interpret what has happened and to reassure them they are safe.
Mister Rogers is famously quoted as saying, “When I was a boy and 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.”
Adults, parents and caregivers can help children in the same way Mister Rogers mother helped him. When a tragedy strikes try to limit children’s exposure to the media. As hard as it is, we as parents, need to turn off the news and stay calm for our children, giving them extra physical affection and comfort. Even if children don’t see the event in the media, parents may want to ask the child what they think has happened, so that children are not left to their own interpretations. Parents don’t need to give the whole story, but answering children’s questions and concerns can help a child to process the event. Lastly, as Mister Rogers says, help your children to focus on the “helpers.” Show them that the adults will help and take care of them if something scary happens. Children are aware of the sad and traumatic events that happen in our world. It is up to us to help them process those events, to make meaning of them, and to overcome the fear that they create. It is up to us to be the helpers in their lives!
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