Recent events have highlighted the impact of violent, traumatic events on our daily lives. Trauma refers to an event, series of events or set of circumstances that are experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that have lasting effects. Exposure to traumatic experiences creates emotional challenges for children of all ages.
Parents and caregivers have the added worry of how to support their children in the aftermath of traumatic experiences. It is important for parents and caregivers to restore a sense of safety to their children even when the world does not feel safe. Adults can support the children in their lives by understanding the impact of traumatic events and knowing specific actions that can bring a sense of comfort and safety.
Children respond to violence and trauma in a variety of ways; however, there are several typical responses. These responses vary, depending on numerous factors, including the following:
- the child’s age
- whether the child knew the individuals involved
- whether the child directly witnessed or indirectly heard about the incident
- how “graphic” the violence was
- how extensively the media covered the event
- if the child has previously experienced exposure to trauma.
Representative Common Responses to Trauma Include:
- Concerns about fearing that the affected person or people suffered
- Repeatedly visualizing the crime or incident in their minds
- Constant attempts to tell and retell the story of the crime or incident
- Need to reenact the crime or incident through play
- Feelings of guilt for not having intervened or prevented the crime
- A desire to seek revenge [for those who knew the victim(s)]
Signs of Grief in Children Parents Should Watch for After Traumatic Exposure
For parents and caregivers, it is important to observe children exposed to trauma for signals of grief after a violent crime or incident. For some children, particularly those who knew the victim(s), these grief signals may include:
- Fear of death
- Fear of being left alone or sleeping alone
- A need to be with people who have been through the same experience
- Difficulty concentrating
- Drop in grades (during the school year)
- Physical complaints, such as headaches or stomachaches
- Fear of sleep
- Clingy behavior and wanting to be with and around parents more often
How to Support Children When They’ve Experienced a Traumatic Event
Ask what they think happened: Let them tell you in their own words, and answer their questions. Do not assume you know what they are feeling or what their questions will be. The easiest way to have this conversation might be while they are engaged in an activity, such as drawing, sitting on a swing or driving with you in the car. Details that may be obvious to adults may not be apparent to children. Be truthful, but don’t tell them more information than they can handle for their age.
Focus on their safety: Once you understand their perception of the traumatic event, be clear that you will keep them safe and let them know other adults (school, police, etc.) are working hard to make sure they will stay safe.
Pay attention to your reactions: Your children will be watching you carefully and taking their cues from you. If you can manage your anxiety about the traumatic event, your children will be more easily reassured.
Monitor your child’s access to media: It will help if young children do not watch news reports or see the front page of the newspaper. Young children who watch a traumatic event on the TV news may think the event is still going on or happening again.
Watch for behavior changes: Your children may show you through their behavior that they are still struggling with what they have heard or seen. They may have physical complaints or regressive behaviors, often including nightmares, insomnia or bedwetting. They may feel guilty that they are responsible for the event and need to be reassured that they are not responsible.
Maintain your routines: Sticking to your daily structure of activities -- mealtimes, bedtime rituals, etc.-- reduces anxiety and helps children feel more in control.
Keep the door open: Encourage your children to come to you with any questions or concerns and do not assume the questions will stop after a few days or up to several weeks. Let them know their fears and questions are normal and you will always be available for them. Remind them that all questions are welcome.
Consider this a teachable moment: For older children, this traumatic event may lead to a discussion about ways they can help others who have experienced a tragedy. You can also ask them if they know how to keep themselves safe when they are away from home. Traumatic events make us feel like we have lost control, so any constructive activities we engage in make us feel less vulnerable.
See also: Workplaces Coping With Suicide Trauma
Tips for Talking to Children Witnessing or Hearing About Traumatic Events
For children who have witnessed violence, either directly or through media exposure, talking with them in an informed, age-appropriate manner can help them process what they’ve seen. Below are representative pointers to consider for these conversations:
- Allow your child to talk about what he/she experienced or heard about
- Know that younger children may prefer to “draw” about their experiences
- Ask them what they saw and heard and what they think about the experience
- Help them to label feelings and normalize their reactions (“That must have been pretty scary. It wouldn’t surprise me if you keep thinking about it.”)
- Keep routines as much the same as possible in the aftermath -- children count on routines and structure
- Spend extra time with your child: have dinner together, make sure to keep bedtime routines, share playtime or take walks together
- Remind your child of things he/she likes to do to help feel better when upset (playing, reading, drawing, singing, etc.)
Steps for Employers to Help Employees Understand the Effects of Trauma on Children
The growing frequency of traumatic incidents has necessitated the expansion of crisis management and emergency response plans for organizations of all sizes. The importance of instituting Critical Incident Response protocols cannot be overstated, including stress debriefing and grief counseling. Often, community-wide services are coordinated in the aftermath of violent, traumatic events. Employers are encouraged to promote these services to their employees and ensure they feel supported to be able to attend these events.
Employers increasingly are adopting trauma-informed approaches to wellbeing and understand the importance of addressing the harmful effects of trauma on affected stakeholders. Employers are encouraged to share information with workers about how to communicate with children in their lives about traumatic incidents. Parents and caregivers are encouraged to seek professional support from licensed practitioners when children do not respond to their intentional efforts to address the effects of trauma.