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Helping Children Cope With Traumatic Events

Carola is a mental health advocate and a freelance writer who focuses on mental health, mental illness, and cognitive conditions.

Violence is a big part of the news these days: mass shootings, terrorism, violent crime, and tragedies associated with natural disasters. Children may be at a loss as to how to deal with the news. They may sense their parents' anxiety, fear, and anger at these events and want to know more about what is going on.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents, caregivers, teachers, and others help children to filter stories about traumatic events. This information should be presented to children in age-appropriate ways to help them accept and adjust to these occurrences. Parents and guardians need to help their kids understand what is happening and grasp concepts such as public safety, gun control, sexuality, and religious freedom.

Signs Children Are Not Coping Well

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, children may have difficulty processing information and struggle to adjust. Here are some signs that they are having difficulty coping.

Signs a Child May Be Struggling:

  • Sleep disturbances such as nightmares, and having difficulty staying asleep.
  • Physical complaints such as the child complaining that they have a headache, feel tired, or generally do not feel well.
  • Children may change their eating habits, such as consuming more or less than usual or appearing to have lost their appetite.
  • Children may regress to more childlike behaviors such as becoming more immature than their age, becoming more demanding, being less patient, or being more clingy to parents.
  • Children may experience more emotional problems such as anxiety, fear, sadness, and depression. Children may feel emotionally overwhelmed by their knowledge of traumatic events.
  • Symptoms of heightened anxiety may appear such as crankiness, unusual irritability, jumpiness, hyperactivity or nightmares.
  • Kids may struggle in school and with homework.
  • Older children may demand more attention, become aggressive, or become unusually withdrawn and quiet.

Parents should offer reassurance and support. Parents and caregivers can help their kids avoid the harmful effects of acute and chronic stress by assessing and dealing with their children's emotional state. If their stress is not addressed, the child may develop health issues such as heart disease or substance abuse later in life.

Conversation Guidelines

According to experts such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are several things that parents can do to address traumatic situations.

Talk About the Issues When Children are Ready

Parents should be open to discussing these topics and recognize that their children may still be processing the event. Children are not always ready to talk about what is actually on their minds. Parents should not push if the child refuses to talk about the event. When traumatic events cause loss, children will need time to grieve.

Children should be given a few days and then offered the opportunity to address the topic again. Parents should acknowledge that these topics are difficult to handle and assure their children that they can share their opinions.

Children as young as four will hear about tragic events and realize that something bad has happened. It is better for a parent or caregiver to share information with their children instead of having them hear it from an outside source. Doing this ensures that their understanding of the events is accurate.

Traumatic events should be shared in a clear manner. When children have a developmental delay, the information shared should match their level of intellectual functioning.

Validate Children's Concerns

Parents need to acknowledge their children's fears and issues without judgment. They can validate their kid's feelings and comfort them by assuring them that the situation is not their fault and that it is OK for them to feel frightened, upset, or angry.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

These types of questions allow them to open up and drive the conversation. Some examples of opening a discussion are: "Are you worried about something?" "Have you heard about (the event)?"

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Listen to Them and Check In

Parents should listen to their children's questions and fears when they want to talk about the events. Their fears are often worse than the reality of the situation. Parents should discourage their children from obsessing and reliving the event.

Later, parents should check in on how their kids are doing. Caregivers can share how they feel about the event if appropriate and let their children know that it is OK if they feel upset. Older children and teens might ask more questions and benefit from getting more information.

Address Safety Issues

Parents should watch for emotions such as anger, stress, fear, and frustration in response to the topic. Kids may need their parents' hugs and physical affection to feel safe.

Children may need reassurance that their parents have taken measures to ensure their safety at home and at school. Parents can create a family safety plan to make their children feel more secure.

Don'ts When Handling These Topics

Caregivers Should Not Avoid Talking About the Topic

If the situation is not addressed, children may feel that the subject is off-limits, increasing their feelings of anxiety. Parents should avoid graphic details and images. Parents should only share enough so that children can understand the situation and avoid adding unnecessary details about tragic events.

Children Should Be Kept Away From Graphic Information

Kids should be shielded from disturbing reports and images on TV, radio, social media, and home computers. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), children who spent most of their time tuned into media coverage on events such as 9/11 reported more trauma-related symptoms.

Dos When Handing These Topics

There are several ways that parents can help children calm down and feel safe:

  • Keep to a routine—routines for meals, family activities, and homework create a sense of stability.
  • Make plans and talk about the future to make the world seem less scary and unpredictable.
  • Be trustworthy and consistent.
  • Encourage children to play with friends or pets, and participate in sports, physical activities, and family outings.
  • Reassure kids that they are safe.
  • Watch news reports with your kids.
  • Seek professional help from mental health professionals if symptoms persist.

Parents and caregivers want to protect their children from hearing about traumatic events, but this is not always possible in our media-driven world. They can, however, reduce their children's anxieties and fears, and help them cope.

References:

Promoting Adjustment and Helping Children Cope, American Academy of Pediatrics
What You Can Do to Help Children Cope with a Disaster, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Helping Children Cope with Traumatic Events, SAMHA
Recognizing and Treating Child Traumatic Stress, helpguide.org
Addressing Children’s Emotional Needs in a Time of Crisis: Tips from the Pros, Johns Hopkins Medicine
How to Talk with Kids About Traumatic Events, Rutgers University

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Carola Finch

Comments

Gordon Wright on June 27, 2016:

I've noticed all these things in people well into their adult years.

I suffered a lot of garbage growing up. I thought I could relate to peole who've been through bad things, but what I find is too many of them haven't the courage to grow up and try to heal. You just can't get real with them without triggering them. I used to have triggers but I got over them.

It seems to me most people are either pain virgins who are stuck in childhood innocence, or damaged people who are stuck in a traumatic childhood. I can't relate to either of these.

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