How to talk to kids about traumatic events
We’re living in uncertain times right now, aren’t we? With many countries in lockdown and many more not far behind, COVID-19 is dominating the media right now. In fact, the coronavirus is all many of us have been talking about for weeks. There’s fear, and speculation, and rumours, and media releases, and press conferences and shut downs and quarantines. And let’s not even mention the panic buying and toilet paper hoarding. We’re all feeling a little helpless, confused and anxious.
But what about the children?
I’ve had quite a few messages from parents wondering how they can support their children through this. What to say? What to do? How can you talk to them about this, help them understand what’s happening and what they can do to stay safe without terrifying the daylights out of them?
It can be hard to find the right words in times like this. Especially if you yourself are feeling quite overwhelmed by the situation. So I’ve put together a list of ideas for you that will help you open up a dialogue with your kids, should they want more information. And of course, these tips are not specific to the current pandemic. These tips will be helpful any time you need to discuss difficult or traumatic situations or incidents with your kids.
1. Keep calm
What is going to stick with your children the most, more than anything specific you might say or do during this situation, is how it felt to live through it. You are responsible for setting the tone in your home, so the most important thing you can do in difficult times is to remain calm yourself. Children are very good at picking up on cues we don’t even realise we are giving them. Trust me, if you feel worried (no matter how well you might think you are hiding it), they’ve noticed, and they’re probably worrying too. But when you are calm, they feel safe and secure.
2. Limit exposure to news and other media
Little ears are always listening. And while you may (understandably) want to keep up to date with the situation, your children? They just want to be children. So switch off the television and turn down the radio while they are in the room – it can be particularly scary and traumatic for children to repeatedly be exposed to images and news stories.
3. Be curious
Create an environment where children are free to ask questions, but let them take the lead when it comes to how much information they receive. Be curious, but try not to make assumptions about what they already know or might like to know. Some kids will have lots of questions, and some may prefer not to talk about it. Both are ok. A simple question like, “Have you heard about this?” or, “What do you know about this?” opens up a dialogue and lets you gauge how much interest or knowledge your child already has about the subject and how much information they might like.
4. Give them age appropriate explanations
Again, be guided by your child here. Often us adults give children waaaay too much information, and it can be overwhelming for them. Answer questions as they arise, and use language your child is familiar with. Story telling is a particularly useful way to provide information to young children and can help them process and make sense of a situation by integrating the emotional and logical parts of the brain.
5. Be honest
Keep it simple, but also be sure to give children honest answers and explanations. Kids have an amazing ability to sniff out a lie, and if the truth comes out later, it may affect their ability to trust you (and your reassurances of safety) again in the future. Don’t make promises or guarantees you can’t keep!
6. Validate how they feel
It’s very tempting to dismiss our children’s fears with comments like, “There’s nothing to worry about”, or “You don’t need to worry”. We think we are helping ease anxiety with reassuring comments like this – but these comments can actually increase anxiety in kids. It is much more helpful to normalise your child’s worries and let them know you understand how they feel.
7. Get creative
Some children won’t be comfortable, or able, to express how they feel with their words. But that doesn’t mean they won’t show you how they feel. Some kids will draw pictures, write stories, or play games that give you some insight into how they might be feeling. Others may complain of physical ailments like stomachaches or headaches, and others may show you with their behaviour that they are feeling anxious or scared. There is no “right” way for your child to express how they feel, so try to be mindful of the different ways your child may be communicating with you.
8. Help them feel safe
Your child will likely need extra reassurance that they are safe right now. Give them lots of extra kisses and cuddles. Extra quality time. Keep their routines as close to normal as possible. Remind them that your role as a parent is to keep them safe, and their role as a child is to play and have fun! And finally, show them how you will keep them safe – give them the evidence! What safety measures are in place at home, school, or the wider community that will help to protect your child?
9. Focus on things you can control
One of the reasons situations like this feel so scary for kids (and adults too!) is that there are so many unknowns. So many things are out of our control when a crisis occurs, and that is terrifying, right? So help your child focus on what they can control. Give them something they can do to help lessen their sense of helplessness and to feel safer.
10. Look for the helpers!
Fred Rogers once said that when he was a boy, and he saw scary things in the news, his mother would encourage him to “look for the helpers”. Because amidst all the chaos, uncertainty and negativity, there are always helpers. Encourage your children to focus on the good. On the kindness of others. The positive stories. And while you’re at it, perhaps you and your children can find a way to be helpers yourselves too!
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.