Don’t be afraid to talk to children about trauma


In a time where it seems as though there are an increasing number of traumatic societal events – the Boston Marathon bombing, the Newtown school shooting and Hurricane Sandy, just to name a few within the last year – it is common for people, especially children and adolescents, to worry and feel vulnerable.

Trauma is defined as an emotional reaction to an extremely stressful or potentially life-threatening event.

With our ever expanding digital world, potentially traumatic events now are playing out in our livings rooms, on our computers, and even on our smartphones and tablets.

Because it is difficult for us to avoid exposure to these events, it is important that we adopt strategies to talk to our children about what they are witnessing.

When children see potentially frightening or violent events through television news outlets or on the Web, it is normal for them to worry about their own safety, especially if the violence has occurred nearby. However, there are steps that parents and concerned adults can take to help buffer their children from emotional pain.

Use the traumatic or frightening event as an opportunity to talk, and listen, to your children. Honesty is important during these times.

Parents can acknowledge that bad things happen but make sure that you also offer reassurance of your children’s safety. Informing children that you, school personnel and local police are all working to make things safe for them in every environment can help them to feel more secure and decrease worry.

Remember that sometimes children will not express feelings verbally or directly, so be aware of changes in behavior or comments that they may make that seem out of the ordinary. It also is important to allow children the opportunity to ask questions if they want. These questions should be answered honestly, but in an age-appropriate manner so as not to cause further worry.

Parents also should be mindful of the emotions they express to their children. Young children may mirror a parent’s emotional response.

Considering limiting children’s exposure to news coverage. Parents may want to monitor the amount of news children watch and try to make an effort to keep their television viewing balanced with age-appropriate programming. This is especially important for young children.

Some research suggests that young children might believe that the violent events are reoccurring each time they see a video replay on the news. This can be confusing and cause even more worry.

Encourage your children and family to continue with usual activities. Routine is an important part of moving forward and it helps to reassure children of their safety.

Remember that children often are resilient. While most children seem to bounce back quickly, it is important for parents to monitor warning signs to see if additional help or support is needed.

Some of these warning signs include: changes in school performance, changes in social behavior, an increase in expression of worry or fear, sleeplessness, frequent headaches or stomachaches and a loss of interest in usual activities. If you notice these warning signs and they do not seem to be alleviating on their own, it might be a good idea to consult with a mental health professional to talk about strategies to more effectively cope.

At times the world may seem stressful, but it is important to remember that keeping lines of communication open between parents and children can help to buffer them from experiencing unnecessary levels of stress and-or worry.

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Schurr is a post-doctoral psychology resident.