Talking to children after a traumatic event
Very few of us feel comfortable about speaking to a child after a traumatic event. What should we say? What should we do? One thing is sure: we have to deal with the reality of what happened because if we don’t, the child will suffer.
The trauma doesn’t have to be something they experience personally. Our news is full of disasters and it is virtually impossible to keep children from hearing about events, such as the recent Knysna fires, the continual violent deaths in Cape Town ganglands, knifings at schools, disappearance of children, floods and fires in the informal settlements, and more. Trying to hide all these things from children will do more harm than good.
The adult’s job, be they teachers or parents, is to firstly shape the way they interpret the information they receive, and secondly to give them time and the opportunity to express their feelings.
Younger children may not have the vocabulary to verbally discuss their understanding or feelings. They may show their need by becoming clingy. Let them cling. Sometimes a hug says more than words. They may also get release through drawings, which is also true of older children.
Children who have good understanding of language will need to talk about their feelings. Your role should be to try and find out what they know and how much they know about the event. Don’t interrogate the child but get this information by inviting them to tell you all about it. Use simple, clear language that is age-appropriate for the child. Don’t lie to them or tell them there’s nothing to worry about but also refrain from telling them more than they want to hear. In other words, don’t offer additional information.
You’ll also need to try to monitor the information your child might be getting from others. They speak to their friends and you can’t stop that. In fact, those discussions might help the healing process. You can, however, prevent them from seeing too much and too graphic television coverage. Young children shouldn’t be watching news broadcasts. Our country, like many others, is dominated by disturbing news. Instead, use news time to read a story, play a family game or do some arts and crafts.
Do try hard to put their feelings into words. For example, “It’s so very sad that people’s houses burnt down,” or “All of us feel scared after hearing that a child was killed at school.” Don’t try to lighten the situation and don’t make promises you can’t keep. Saying something like, “Don’t worry, that won’t happen again” and another incident occurs, will only destroy the trust your child has in you.
You should remind them of the positive: that others are rallying around to help the victims; that the authorities are working out how to prevent similar future events, even what steps are taken by their own schools to prevent children carrying weapons onto the grounds or to protect them from being absconded by kidnappers.
Young children will show reaction to trauma in behaviours. Preschoolers may become clingy, wet their beds or soil their underwear and resort to thumb sucking. Primary school children may also become clingy but may suffer nightmares, unusual behaviour such as aggressiveness, trouble with schoolwork, moodiness, headaches, stomach aches, develop a rash(eczema) and even show breathing difficulties such as wheezing.
Giving children a sense of control over the situation can be helpful. Ask them what would help to make them feel better. If they answer that they would like to sleep with you then allow them to do so. Perhaps they would like to be involved in doing something to help those who suffered through the event. This type of behaviour gives them a sense of having control over their lives and can be helpful.
Adolescents may respond differently. They may be more unwilling to speak about their fears and uncertainties. They may try to repress fears. The result is that they may often act out, misbehave or become depressed. In addition, they may have access to the internet and social media which can expose them to sights and information that can raise their anxiety levels. Try to find out and, if needed, impose some limits on this exposure.
The types of effects that stress has on older children may include: headaches, stomach aches, fatigue, isolating themselves socially, using drugs or alcohol, sleeplessness, trouble concentrating, physical complaints and pains, change in usual behaviour and eating disorders.
If your adolescent is unwilling to talk to you, counselling from an impartial third-party might help.
Some practical steps that you can take include
- Keep to a routine as far as possible. Humans find comfort in routines because they are predictable and reliable. This gives us a sense of security
- Brainstorm ways of helping the victims – collecting clothes or food, or even writing a letter to a family expressing sympathy
- As always, during times of stress and trauma, children need a well-balanced diet and ample time for rest and relaxation. Remember that stress has wide-ranging physiological effects which interfere with health and well-being. Good food and rest are important for helping the body cope
- Find ways of showing your children that you love them and are determined to protect them no matter what
You can’t hide your child from the stressors of our world. The dangers out there are many and real. Preparing to help your children begins at an early age when you talk a lot to your children and invite them to share their feelings with you. An open parent-child relationship can be a huge benefit if they are to become resilient to traumas in their lives.
 Dr David Marks, Raising stable kids in an unstable world.