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Talking To Your Children About Traumatic Events

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How to Explain Traumatic Events To Your Kids
Yesterday’s random shooting in the food court of the Toronto Eaton’s Centre has many children frightened about their safety.  It also has parents wondering what best to do to ease their child’s fears.   Here are my 5 points for building your approach:
1. Filter and Process Information
Use your own adult wisdom to properly screen the traumatic information coming to your child to ensure it’s age appropriate.  I suggest that for all but the most mature children, you simply turn off the radio and TV.  Even if you think your toddler doesn’t understand what is being said on the TV, the visual images are frightening.  You can get information on the event yourself later by reading about it on line, or by watching the news after the kids go to bed.  Discussions are less likely to incite fear and anxiety than a news report will.
Even with the TV off, children will be hearing about the news through social media.  With kids going online at younger ages than ever before, you will have to be prepared to explain, discuss and help make sense of what they are hearing.  Make your parental presence felt as that will create feelings of security.
2.  Don’t Lie 
When discussing difficult matters, whether it is a random shooting, an abduction, an earthquake or someone’s cancer diagnosis, it’s important that you don’t lie.  A child will likely uncover a lie and feel betrayal, lack trust in you and they’ll wonder what is wrong with them that their own parents didn’t trust them enough to tell them the truth.   Instead, using the screening of information to decide which truthful elements are age appropriate to share.  For a young child, you may simply say “something tragic happened at a very big mall, and many people are upset because a person died and many many people were scared” For an older child “There was a random shooting at a food court and someone got killed.  A lot of people were there and so it caused a big public panic. A lot of people were hurt and traumatized”
3. Help Them Feel Safe 
The bigger job is to help our children make sense of the random act of terror and restore a sense of calm security.  Parents should re-assure their children that Canada is one of the safest countries to live in, and that we have a very low crime rate.  In fact,  these types of random acts of violence are so rare that statistically speaking, it’s far more dangerous driving to the mall than the chance of being shot at while eating in the food court.   I’ve also told my kids that if they don’t get involved in drugs and gangs,  and if they pick a good life mate, they have just ruled out most of the reasons there are shootings.   It’s more likely you’d be hit by lightning than a stray bullet.   Lately, the news has been particularly gruesome ( aka – the man hunt for Luka Rocco Magnotta) so this is also a good time to discuss media and how sensational stories capture more ratings than the more mundane  “firefighter gets cat down from tree” type story.  If media were properly balanced, we would all see that humanity is largely full of safe, loving people who do good deeds for one another.   That is the more accurate depiction of our society.
4. Your Attitude is Infectious
Your children observe your reactions as a barometer for knowing how they should be feeling about events.  You cannot properly calm your child’s fears if you are still worried yourself.   Deliver your messages with a calm re-assurance and don’t over protect or helicopter parent.
5.  Respond to Needs for Extra Cuddles
It is natural for a child to become extra clingy when they have experienced some extreme stressor or trauma.  They might even act baby-like in order to invite extra nurturing.  Be generous with your love and cuddles.  Touch has a powerful ability to release a cascade of chemicals in the body that helps relieve stress.   Just be sure you don’t alter some basic limits and boundaries or feel pity. Pity sends the message “I don’t believe you can manage” when in fact we want our children to know that we believe they can! That is a vote of confidence which builds their self-esteem and sense of security.
I hope these ideas help.  Share your stories, ideas and resources in the comment section. Together we are better.

About Alyson

Alyson has been blogging parenting advice for over 15 years. She has been a panelist at BlogWest, Blissdom, #140NYC and more. Her content appears on sites across Canada and the US, but you can read all her own blog posts right here.

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One Response to “Talking To Your Children About Traumatic Events”

  1. Bal

    Thanks Alyson, I’m a single mother of 2 girls, 7 & 9 years old. Long story short, I left an abusive marriage about 5 years ago, during the separation, my ex took his own life and I was left with no money to support them, as I had been a stay-at-home mom all their lives. Now 3 years after his death, I am trying to raise these girls as best as I can, by modelling good behaviours, and having constant communication with them. I never took them to any professional help or myself for that matter. My older daughter has been increasingly disrespectful to people in her life and I don’t understand why. She knows better and no one else in the family has behaved in that manner. She seemingly makes the same mistakes over and over, lying, saying bad words, talking back to elders, etc. I think on my part, I lose my patience and go straight to the “punishment” route. I can’t help it. I feel like talking to her doesn’t help. She nods and says she’s sorry and apologizes, etc, but later repeats it again! I feel like I’m talking to a wall when I sit down and have talks with her. My younger one is opposite, she doesn’t speak much to people, only certain people, she’s very introverted and cries a lot, very sensitive. Some parenting experts say that we shouldn’t try to change sensitive children and don’t tell them to toughen up, but this world is so crazy that if you don’t have a tough skin, it’s hard to survive! Sorry about the rambling, I don’t have anyone else to discuss this parenting issues with, I feel like other parents that I know are not where I’d like to be in terms of “parenting styles”. I was wondering what you thought about if I took the children and myself to a volunteer program of some sort. So they can learn the acts of helping others and showing respect to all people no matter who they are. Thanks, take care.


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