Talking to kids about traumatic world events

January 18, 2010 5:38:58 PM PST
The devastation of Haiti: Helping your kids cope with this and other traumatic events.
  1. How much information should a child be exposed to: Turn off the news on TV and radio and don't let your children see or hear any more images of the devastation in Haiti. There is no need for them to be traumatized. What you say will depend on your child's age, temperament, and what they have heard. Ask them what they know, what they are feeling, and what they want to know.

  2. What do you say when they ask if this will happen to them? This is always a concern for children so you need to take some time to answer in a thoughtful way. Don't just brush them off with a "No, it will never happen" Again, depending on the age you might want to show them how houses were built on Haiti and how your house is built. You can explain the idea of reinforcing foundations and other ways you've "earthquake proofed" your house. For some children you'll need to go into the issues of equity and how unfortunate it is that some people live in poverty and others don't.

  3. What can you do to help them deal with their feelings of fear? Always take the time to listen to what they are feeling. Accept their feelings and then ask any questions to clarify. Children might want to help by donating some of their savings or helping you decide on the best place to donate. Some children will want to help you buy supplies for your house, or bring some supplies to school. Remind them that we have good medical care in the and that there are lots of people to help out if an earthquake happens. Also if it fits with your values, you can pray together and light a candle for the people who have died in Haiti.

  4. Your children will listen to what you say on the phone or to your friends, so keep that in mind. Don't minimize what happened but don't burden them with the details. Children should not carry these issues on their shoulders, so respond to what they ask. Let them know that there are people from all over the world sending supplies and money and people to help. Going into the details with kids of the deaths will not help anyone.
Helping Children Cope with Traumatic Events
By Rona Renner, RN & Marisol Muñoz-Kiehne, PhD

Traumatic events take various forms. Unfortunately, many of us have experienced events such as fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, accidents, and encounters with community violence. We need to be prepared to handle our reactions in difficult times so we can be available for children who count on us to protect and teach them to handle their own reactions.

  • Be aware of your emotions, take a minute to calm down, and respond to children in a thoughtful and honest manner. If you are overwhelmed by your reactions, find an adult with whom you can talk.

  • You may have a worried look on your face, or you may be crying. As soon as you can, focus on what the children need. Let your voice, gestures, and body language begin to offer reassurance.

  • Children want to know that they'll be safe. Find something you can say that will give comfort. You can honestly say, "I will do everything I can to protect you."

  • Talk about the situation at hand, based on each child's comprehension level and sensitivity. Keep your explanations simple. Give information that will clarify facts. Listen to what the children are saying to each other.

  • Always find out what the children already knows or believes. You may need to start your conversation by correcting misinformation.

  • Tell children about the things your family and school does to help them stay safe. Review any routines, such as "Duck and Cover" for an earthquake or "Stop, drop, and Roll" for a fire. Teach children an emergency plan, including learning their full name, phone number, and safe places to go in their home and neighborhood.

  • Observe your children's play. Some children will act out what has upset them. If you're dealing with a serious problem or loss, use art, music, or writing to express feelings. Read books, take walks, and notice things around you that are healthy and beautiful.

  • Set up a number scale with children where (0) is when they've felt the worst ever and had a terrible day and (10) is when they've felt the happiest and had a great day. This is a way to check in to see what kind of day they're having. Ask what they could do to change their day to a higher number.

  • When a difficult or traumatic situation occurs, do your best to stay calm, alert, and respectful to others. Your children are watching you, and they will learn by what you do even more than by what you say.


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