Talking to your children about traumatic events

  • Published
  • By Maj. Alicia Matteson, clinical psychologist
  • 86th Medical Operations Squadron
Terrorism, tsunamis, war. Given recent real-world events, many parents are understandably concerned about how these events are impacting their children and how to best discuss these events with them.
Parents struggle daily with balancing the need for their children to be alert and informed with their desire to 'de-stress' their children's environments and help them feel safe.

Although children are remarkably resilient, many will display temporary signs and behaviors that suggest they may be experiencing some level of stress.

These signs and behaviors are most evident during times of heightened parental and family stress, such as increased operational and work tempo, awareness of security alerts, or the occurrence of natural disasters.

Children are often sensitive to the stress around them and may express their worries in various ways. This will of course depend upon their developmental stage and unique personalities.
It is recommended that parents pay close attention to changes in their children's behaviors as children often do not know how to verbalize what they are feeling.

Attached is a table that highlights general guidelines to assist parents/caregivers in recognizing stress in children per developmental age.
What you can do to help your child:

1. Role model healthy coping:

One of the most important things a parent can do to help their child is to take care of themselves. Engage in basic self-care -- such as exercise, healthy eating, regular sleep, and recreational and social activities. Think about how you would like for your child to manage stress and make sure you are "walking the walk." Take care of your own emotional needs through appropriate avenues, such as your friends, adult family members, chaplains and counselors. Talk with other adults about the details of your concerns and fears. Try not to add to your children's fears or burden them with your emotional needs.

2. Provide a sense of security and routine:

This is a time for extra hugs, cuddles and reassurance. Using age-appropriate language, tell your child that you will always do everything you can to keep them and yourself safe. Maintain family routines as much as possible. If there will be disruptions to schedules, give your child as much warning as possible to foster a sense of predictability to their daily routine.

3. Minimize exposure to sensationalized news:

As adults, watching repetitive news coverage of disasters and other traumatic events can be upsetting. It can be even more so for a child. Monitor the age-appropriateness of the media your child is exposed to and limit the amount of time the news is broadcast in your home. You also have the right to know what your child is being exposed to at school. Start a dialogue with your child's teacher regarding if and how disasters and traumatic events are being addressed in the classroom.

4. Encourage expressions of emotions:

If your child asks you how you are feeling about recent events, be honest ("I feel sad that so many people died in Japan") but do not overwhelm your children with the responsibility of feeling as though they must take care of your emotional needs. Be a positive role model for them on constructive ways to manage emotions, such as drawing or writing about feelings, talking with each other, praying or other forms of your family's expressions and beliefs. Do not minimize how they are feeling, and at the same time, reassure them that as their parent, you will do what you can to keep them safe.

5. Promote involvement:

Encourage involvement in relief efforts, such as donating clothes or their allowance money to humanitarian organizations, participating in fundraisers for disaster relief, or writing letters to deployed service members who are engaged in humanitarian operations. Teach your children that as military family members, they are doing their part to help others. During uncertain times, our children can feel proud that they are an important part of a system created to safeguard others.

6. Be patient:

Children who are verbal may ask many questions about traumatic events, which can frustrate parents. Try not to minimize their concerns, and be prepared to repeat your answers and your reassurances. The behavioral signs that a child is under stress (whining/clinginess, poor academic performance, refusal to do chores) are also often frustrating for parents. Increase your patience by understanding that such behaviors are expressions of stress, and that children do not choose to be stressed. If you feel that you need help increasing your patience with your children, please utilize the many helping programs that exist for military parents.

For more information or help, contact:

AF Family Advocacy: 479-2370
Airman & Family Readiness Center: 480-5100
Army Family Advocacy: 486-8366/493-4332
Army Community Services: 493-4203
Ramstein Chaplain's Office: 480-6148
Your child's school

Helpful Websites: (All branches of the service, Active Duty, Guard, Reserves, and all family members) (National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families) (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) (National Child Traumatic Stress Network) (Federal Emergency Management Agency- Information on preparing for and recovering from emergencies) (Prepare your "Family Emergency Kit/Disaster Plan") (Preparation, training, information on current events)