When something terrible happens, like school children being shot and killed in their classrooms, we are left in a state of shock. Parents may be wondering how to help their children make sense of something that makes no sense and leaves us reeling.
When life is difficult, I always find comfort in preparing a meal for my family, sitting around the table together and discussing the latest events. Kids who participate in regular family dinners do better in school, have higher IQs, and are more likely to steer clear of drugs/alcohol. As parents, we do not have to have all the answers. Just listen and reassure your kids that you will do everything in your power to keep them safe and that you love them.
Here is a video featuring Dr. Victor Carrion of the Stanford Early Life Stress Research Program made at the time of the tsunami in Japan entitled, "How to Talk to Kids about Japan's Disaster". The advice for parents pertains to any trauma. In summation, these are some of the key points.
Tips to help children cope with traumatic events
- Let your child know they can talk with you about the event. Do not force the discussion, but let them know you are available should they want to discuss it.
- Be honest about what happened. Your child is going to get the details from their friends. Being graphic is not necessary, but do not be afraid to say what has occurred. This will help strengthen the trust between you and your child.
- Younger children may need to talk through play and drawings.
- Repeat what you say. This can help children feel safer as they try to process their feelings. They are worried that the bad thing may happen to them or their family. They need to be reassured.
- Give kids a sense of control by having them help in some way. For example, participating in a community event that benefits the victims can help the child feel as if s/he has some ability to help.
- Talk about positives that have come out of the trauma, such as the way people helped each other.
- Reassure your children that you will protect them and keep them safe.
- It is okay to restrict television exposure to traumatic images.
- Kids with a past trauma history are at greater risk of being negatively affected by exposure to traumatic news.
- If your child seems to worry excessively, consider a professional consultation to assist them.
A small percentage of children and adults who experience serious trauma in which life threatening harm has happened to them or someone they love will go on to develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a disorder of fear extinction. The body’s fear extinction mechanism has ceased to function. A person with PTSD experiences three categories of symptoms.
- Hyper-arousal – they are aware of every little noise, easily startled and constantly on edge. It is very difficult to relax as they are always on the look out for danger and hyper-vigilant. Sleep disturbances are common, along with irritability, anger outbursts and difficulty concentrating.
- Intrusive recollection – thoughts of the traumatic event keep coming up unbidden. Nightmares or bad dreams recur. A person might even experience flashbacks in which it feels like they are back in the middle of the trauma all over again, especially when exposed to cues or triggers that remind them of it.
- Avoidance/numbing - effort is made to avoid reminders of the trauma, and not to think about it. It may become hard to feel the normal range of emotions and the ability to demonstrate emotion might be restricted. A person may have a sense that they will not live a long life.
The bad news about PTSD is it does not go away over time and only gets worse. The good news is it responds very well to treatment. I was fortunate to have worked for Dr. Carrion for many years as a child trauma therapist in a three year clinical research trial. We tested a 15 session intervention with children who had been through a traumatic stressor in schools in San Francisco and East Palo Alto. We had excellent results with children having a huge drop in posttraumatic symptoms, depression and anxiety. A publication is pending.
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen says, “The kitchen table is a level playing field. Everyone’s story matters.” The love and comfort found in doing something ordinary such as sitting around the kitchen table, sharing a family meal, and talking about the day’s events is a magical healing salve for the wounds of the world.