How To Help Your Children Process Traumatic Events

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Children tend to live in a narrower environment than adults—one that mainly consists of school and home—whereas adults have a wider environment and perspective. This is one reason why children process events differently than adults. “When children see or hear something bad that’s happened, they see it as their whole environment being impacted,” says Hanna Cook, LMSW, a pediatric psychotherapist with Henry Ford Health.

Whether it’s the COVID-19 pandemic or horrific school shootings, many devastating events are impacting children right now. “Children are grieving the death of the world they thought they lived in,” says Cook. “They’re being forced to face the thought of death, which might not have been on their minds before.”

Talking To Your Child About A Traumatic Event

While these topics can be difficult to broach with your child, they’re important to talk about. “When children are able to process their emotions in effective way, they’ll be less likely to be negatively impacted in the future,” Cook says. Here, she offers tips to having constructive, healthy conversations.

  1. Act calm. Be a stable sounding board for your child. Instead of appearing overwhelmed or worried, show them they can rely on you as a pillar of support.
  2. Talk to your child in a comforting environment. Get situated on the couch with pillows and blankets and snuggle together. It will help to make your child feel safe and secure.
  3. Let your child guide the conversation. Don’t make assumptions about what your child is worried about. Have them lead the conversation by sharing their fears and worries. Encourage them to ask questions and express their concerns.
  4. Acknowledge and validate their worries. Tell them what happened isn't their fault and that it’s okay to feel what they're feeling.  
  5. Give them as much information as possible, in an age-appropriate way. “Don’t just say they’ll be fine—provide your child with specific details that will create security in their life,” says Cook. “For example, instead of saying ‘everything will be okay,’ tell them the police is investigating every allegation. Or that getting vaccinated and wearing masks will protect us from getting sick.”

When your child is ready, encourage them to make meaningful connections to memorialize the traumatic event, whether that’s praying, lighting a candle or writing letter to their school. “It’s part of the grieving process, and encouraging that process is so important,” says Cook.

It’s also important to ensure they maintain their routines: that they’re getting up in the morning, going to scheduled events, having regular mealtimes and bedtimes. “Create a consistent environment so they don’t feel like their entire world is changing,” she adds.

When To See A Professional

If your child is having trouble sticking to routines, if their grades start to plummet, if they act out of character or if they’re experiencing panic attacks—if they aren’t able to cope in a healthy way, it may be time to see a professional.

“Really, it’s up to the parent to decide when it’s time to see a therapist,” says Cook. “I recommend sitting down with your kiddo, asking if they’re struggling, and whether they’d like to talk to someone. Many times, kids express that yes, they would.”

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To find a doctor or therapist at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-436-7936.

Hanna Cook, LMSW, is a clinical pediatric psychotherapist at Henry Ford Health. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – Ford Road in Dearborn.

Categories: ParentWell