As parents, we try our best to protect our children from harm. We remind them to put their seatbelts on, look both ways before crossing the road, and to wear a bike helmet as they head out for a ride with friends.
We also try to shield them from the emotional pitfalls of life, navigating their paths in the hopes they will get through childhood without experiencing the pain of trauma.
But life isn’t always predictable, and it certainly isn’t always easy. Our role isn’t just as a protector; it’s also as a guide to helping kids with trauma persevere. When we have a kid dealing with trauma, that's when they need our support more than ever.
Just like you are ready with a band-aid to heal a scraped knee, it’s good to be prepared to explain trauma to kids and have the difficult conversations that happen to help kids with trauma.
What Is Trauma?
Traumatic experiences are those that cause extreme fear and/or significantly disrupt a child’s daily life. Trauma in kids can happen over time, such as a child being bullied at school, or they could be a single catastrophic event, such as the loss of a family member or a natural disaster. Even world events like violence and war that children hear about on TV or the Internet could cause the child to experience emotional symptoms of trauma.
In many cases, we as parents are the ones that have to deliver the bad news about the traumatic event or ask children to talk about what may be happening to them. Understanding how to navigate difficult topics and explain trauma to kids can not only help create a solid foundation of trust between you and your child, but it also provides a good communication model for them to follow in their future relationships.
Prepare for the Conversation
If you have to communicate something bad that you know is going to have a significant—even life-altering—impact on your child’s emotional well-being, it’s important to prepare for the conversation as much as possible.
Do Your Research
Being informed about the traumatic event can help put your child at ease and give them some level of comfort that you (as a trusted adult) have a plan to keep them safe. For instance, if there has been a natural disaster that has destroyed your home, research housing options and other related solutions before you talk to your child about what happened. If a loved one has been diagnosed with a serious illness, research the treatment plans to help your child understand what will happen in the coming weeks or months.
Determine What Your Child Already Knows
Children usually know more than we think they do, but they may not be able to fully process that information. It’s good to ask them what they do know, so you can use that as a starting point for your conversation. For instance, if a parent or loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, you could ask your child if they’ve noticed anything different, or if they know what cancer is. If a traumatic event happened to your child, you may ask them how they felt about what happened. Don’t force your child to discuss the event, but let them know you love them and are there to support them.
Prepare to Handle Your Own Emotions
Situations that are highly emotional, such as loss of life, can be difficult to talk about. When talking to kids about trauma, it’s okay to show appropriate emotional responses in those situations that impact you as a parent. But your response to the situation will set the tone for your child. If you present the situation as hopeless, depressing, or with anger and bitterness, that will impact the way that your child handles the situation. Even if those are your initial responses, when explaining trauma to kids, be aware of the fact that your child is watching and learning how they should respond. If you approach it in a way that conveys it is okay to be sad, but together you will work through this, most likely your child will follow your lead.
Be Prepared for Questions
Depending on the situation, your child may ask questions or share information that you find shocking. No matter how well-prepared you think you are for the conversation, it can be hard to answer your child honestly, especially when you know the truth will hurt them. However, research shows that children can sense when their parents are not being honest with them, which can lead to a lack of trust in the parent-child relationship.
Remember, children are amazingly resilient and can deal with just about anything with the loving support of their parents. Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t have all the answers—it is perfectly fine to say “I don’t know,” or “Let me think about that and we can discuss it more later when I have an answer.”
Be as honest as developmentally appropriate, and don’t make promises that can’t be kept just to try to make them feel better.
Acknowledge Their Feelings
Trauma in kids usually comes with a variety of emotional responses. Teaching your child to recognize how they are feeling is an important step in the healing process.
- Watch for verbal and non-verbal cues during the conversation.
- Look for opportunities to let them know you are aware that they may have different feelings about what has happened.
- Acknowledge your own feelings about the situation, but avoid sharing any anxiety you have, since that can cause your child to become anxious as well.
- Don’t minimize the situation or their emotional response to it. Be empathetic, supportive, and reassuring.
Be an Active Listener
Traumatic events that happen to your child also often significantly impact you, which could make you distracted. Whether it is your first grader with questions about their grandmother’s passing or your teen sharing their feelings about your recent divorce, it is important that you are attentive and actively listening to them. Put down your phone and turn off the computer or TV. Make eye contact, lean in, nod, and don’t be distracted by other conversations. They need to know you care about what they are saying.
Always Keep the Lines of Communication Open
While none of us prepares to deal with a traumatic event, establishing open lines of communication with your child prior to any life-changing incident will help you navigate anything life throws at your family in a more positive way. While we are all busy, take time each day to connect with your child. Talk to them about school and friends. At bedtime, ask them to tell you about one funny thing that happened to them that day. When they do talk to you, even if it’s a story you’ve heard a thousand times, actively listen, and show that what they say matters to you.
By establishing a pattern of talking to your child and listening to them, you will be one step ahead when it comes to having difficult conversations with your child. They also will be more likely to approach you if something bad does happen to them, which is critically important as they enter their teen years.
If you are working through a traumatic event, make sure your child knows you are there for them and that they can come to you when they are ready to talk. Check in with them frequently. Guide your child towards finding solutions or coping strategies, depending on the situation.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
If you have a kid dealing with trauma, it is a good idea to seek help. Left untreated, those who have experienced trauma may experience long-term effects such as depression, extreme anxiety, and sleep disturbances and could experience a lifetime of problems maintaining relationships. Connections Academy® offers private counseling for online students. Online school counselors are licensed and available for every student. Be sure to connect with them or with other mental health experts to get counseling for students learning online dealing with trauma so they can continue leading a healthy, happy, and well-adjusted life.
Karen Muston is a school counseling consultant for Pearson Virtual Schools, where she provides support and guidance for virtual school counselors across the nation. She is a certified school counselor with over 18 years of experience in education and over nine years of experience as a virtual school counselor. She also holds a B.S. in English and psychology, an M.S. in psychology and counseling, and a teaching certification in English. Additionally, she is a certified AFSP (American Federation for Suicide Prevention) suicide bereavement group facilitator and a member of the ASCA (American School Counselor Association).