Talking to kids about traumatic events

The terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch have left New Zealanders stunned and horrified. All over the country, parents are struggling to explain complicated concepts like racism, hate crimes, and white supremacy to their children. The devastation has far-reaching effects as our nation finds its feet in the wake of this horrible event. In this article adapted from “The Aftershocks” by counsellor John Carney, we share ideas for how you can help lessen the turmoil for your child.

Understanding and supporting your child

Following the distressing and heartbreaking events in Christchurch, parents all around the country will have found themselves faced with a lot more questions than certainties about their everyday lives. Many parents will be asking themselves questions such as: Is Christchurch no longer a safe place for my family? How do we respond to our children’s questions and fears? How do we create a sense of safety and continuity for our children? Parents throughout New Zealand will find their own life journeys echoing and reflecting some of these questions. It is a time of enormous loss, grief, and change, and it is also a time of reflection, gathering, and hope.

In the aftermath of this distressing, life-altering event, we have witnessed extraordinary acts of courage, generosity, kindness, determination, teamwork, leadership, and compassion. Many of these acts have come from our children. These “silver lining stories” are pivotal in a child’s healing from trauma and loss, helping children to regain competence, optimism, and trust in their future.

Know that children are sensitive to how their parents feel

It’s easy to assume that children, particularly young children, don’t know what’s going on when a crisis occurs. But they are incredibly sensitive to their parents’ feelings, and are keenly aware of the nonverbal cues that parents give: Worried facial expressions, hushed conversations, shutting down their phone or changing the TV channel when children come into the room. And it’s scary for children to realise that their parents are scared.

Children hear and see things, particularly in this uber-connected world where devices are a part of daily life. Be aware of what they are looking at online, and if they ask questions or you overhear them talking to others, ask them what they think happened. If the answer is, “I don’t know,” then perhaps the best reply would be something like, “I’m sad because something terrible happened in Christchurch, and I am worried. But I love you, and I will take care of you.” It’s important to let children know that it’s okay for them to feel sad or worried or scared, so they don’t think they need to hide their feelings. Our job as parents is to help them to accept their feelings as natural and normal, which helps them to manage their feelings better and with more confidence.

Stress responses in children

Traumatic events may initially affect a child or young person’s sense of self, because it unsettles their trust in the world as a reasonably safe and predictable place. However, given time to recover and heal, most children who have been affected will spring back to their normal selves. Nevertheless, children can fear more than we may apprehend, because they may not express these fears directly.

Physical symptoms also commonly occur in response to ongoing stress and loss. Some children may develop stomach upsets, nausea, headaches, fatigue, anxiety symptoms, emotional swings, and sleep problems. Younger children may temporarily lose some of the developmental skills they had achieved prior to the event. They may resort to bedwetting, wanting to drink from a bottle instead of a cup, and become more clingy and demanding. Older children may experience delayed stress reactions that show up in decreased work performance at school. These are normal responses to extraordinary stress, and mostly these fears, behaviours and physical symptoms will diminish over the following weeks and months.

Each person develops their own way of coping with the events, and will have actively searched for ways to hold on to what is important and precious to them. Seen in this light, some behaviours that may seem to be regressive are actually a young person’s way of coping. For instance, a child may demand more attention and cuddles to help reconnect them with a sense of safety and feeling loved.

However, if you are concerned that your child does not seem to be returning to their “old self” in time, don’t hesitate to reach out to your GP or Plunket nurse. You can always call Plunketline on 0800 933 922 for advice.

How parents and others can help children

Talking it through

Create spaces and contexts where your child can talk about their concerns or fears, and have them acknowledged and respected. Don’t rush in too quickly with solutions. Often children reconnect with their own inner strengths to be able to deal with fears once they have had the space just to express them. While some children will feel the need to keep replaying the events in order to make sense of them, others may not want to talk about their experiences. Uniqueness is to be honoured. At the same time, it can be helpful to create conversations that make specific references to a child’s skills in helping and coping with the events. Paying attention to a child’s concerns, while at the same time elaborating on stories around how they have survived, helped and how they are coping helps to reinforce particular skills.

Expressing feelings

After an event like the terror attack, it is very normal for children to feel and express a whole range of emotions, from appreciation and caring to irritability, anxiety, and sadness. Accepting these emotions and helping children to get in touch with some unexpressed emotions helps them to feel safe and validated. At the same time, it is important to continue halting any behaviour that isn’t acceptable. Limit-setting around unacceptable behaviour, encouraging and expecting competence, and reconnecting with normal routines alongside lots of cuddles and expressions of affection helps to make children feel secure again.

Bouncing back

Children are naturally wired toward growth. When guided, affirmed, and supported, they have wonderful inner resources to bounce back in time after adversity. If your child’s confidence has been knocked, it can be helpful when they are ready to broaden their range of hobbies and skills, such as rock climbing, carpentry, acting, creative writing, music, or dancing. Activities such as these broaden their support system and strengthen their sense of mastery and competence. This all helps in being able to move forward.

Writing it down

Writing things down can help children to process their “big feelings” about traumatic events. Even younger children can draw or colour pictures that narrate their experiences and understanding. This helps children to have their own story and understanding validated, and to help them remember things like how to hold on to qualities of caring and courage in spite of fear, and what things are most important to them now. They may wish to draw a picture or write a card that you could send or drop off at a local mosque to show your caring and compassion.

Look for the helpers

Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood said, “When I was a boy and I 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.’ Mr Rogers said it comforted him to realise that there are still so many “helpers” – caring people – in the world, and this is good advice in this situation too. Help children to focus on the helpers: The police, the doctors and nurses at the hospital, neighbours and friends, and other communities around the country who are reaching out to help those affected. If your local church, community organisation, or your child’s school is taking part in events to raise awareness or fundraise for the affected families, consider getting involved and letting your child become one of the “helpers” too.

For yourself

A life-changing event like this is synonymous with stress, so for parents to effectively support their children, you also need to take care of your inner and outer worlds. Lessening your own worries and stress where you can, certainly helps to diminish your own child’s fear. So take good care of yourself.

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