Nine Tips for Talking to Kids about Trauma

From Greater Good Center at UC Berkeley,

By Kira M. Newman | November 30, 2015

Just because children aren’t talking about a tragedy doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about it, experts say. They may sense your discomfort and not want to upset you by bringing it up, or they may be too overwhelmed by their own feelings to express them.
“Without factual information, children (and adults) ‘speculate’ and fill in the empty spaces to make a complete story or explanation,” explains psychiatrist Bruce D. Perry in a guide for the nonprofit Child Trauma Academy on “Helping Traumatized Children.” “In most cases, the child’s fears and fantasies are much more frightening and disturbing than the truth.” As soon as the child asks questions or seems to be thinking about the event, it’s time to have a conversation, Perry advises.
Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR), in a guide called “Talking with Children about War and Violence in the World,” suggests that children as young as four or five can benefit from talking about the event. To open up the conversation, you might start with questions like these:
“How do you feel about what’s happening in the world?”
“What are you or your friends thinking and talking about in terms of the world situation?”
“Are you and your friends talking about what happened in Paris? I’d be really interested in hearing about what you think. Let me know if you want to talk.”

Tragedy can rattle our sense of safety, and our children’s. One goal of this conversation is to provide them with the reassurance that:
Things will get better.
You will be there for them.
They can ask you questions anytime.
They are safe, and so are the people they care about.
To make your reassurances more believable, you can point out some of the safety measures that are being taken, like explaining what security guards do. “Children need to hear very clearly that their parents are doing all they can to take care of them and to keep them safe. They also need to hear that people in the government and other grownups they don’t even know are working hard to keep them safe, too,” reads a quote from Fred “Mister” Rogers on his website, which contains a section dedicated to helping children after tragic events.

Although we always want to be good listeners for our children, it’s especially crucial in the wake of traumatic events. That means giving them our full attention, and not jumping to judge or minimize what they’re saying-no matter how silly or illogical it may seem. For example, if a child is afraid that every plane overhead carries a bomb, it might be better to say, “I understand why you’re scared, but actually…” instead of stuttering out a horrified “No, of course not!”
“By your ability to listen calmly, even to concerns which might seem unrealistic, you communicate that their fears are not too frightening to deal with,” the ESR guide explains.
If children’s fears sound vague or jumbled, parents can help by gently summarizing what they’re hearing: “It sounds like what you’re feeling is…” A few clarifying questions can also help:
“That’s interesting, can you tell me more about that?”
“What do you mean by…?”
“How long have you been feeling…?”

By listening, parents can discover the snippets and rumors that their children have already absorbed about a tragedy. If it’s unclear, a simple “What have you heard about this?” should do the trick.
A key purpose of this conversation is to correct any misconceptions children may have picked up while at the same time offering more concrete information. You can tailor the level of detail depending on their age and how many unanswered questions are weighing on their minds.
Some of those questions may be tricky to answer-and in that case, ESR suggests responses like these:
“I don’t know the answer to that and I’m not sure anyone does. I do know, however, that many thoughtful people throughout the world are working hard to understand this issue.”
“That’s an interesting question, and I don’t know the answer. How can we find that out together?”
“The process of figuring out where to get the information, and going through the steps to obtain it, can be a powerfully reassuring experience for children, especially when a trusted adult participates with them,” the guide explains. “In a small but significant way, this experience can demonstrate for young people that there are orderly ways to go about solving problems and that the world is not beyond our understanding.”

Sadness, anxiety, fear, stress, even excitement-all feelings are possible in response to tragedy and violence. Whatever children are feeling, Mister Rogers encouraged parents to show understanding and acceptance:
“If we don’t let children know it’s okay to feel sad and scared, they may think something is wrong with them when they do feel that way,” he said. “If we can help them accept their own feelings as natural and normal, their feelings will be much more manageable for them.”
We might even encourage children to express their feelings in a non-verbal way, through drawing, writing, singing, or play.

Experts seem to agree that sharing your feelings with your child can be beneficial, with some caveats.
First, you want to communicate that you can handle whatever it is you’re feeling. “[Children] get a chance to see that even though upset, you can pull yourself together and continue on. Parents hear it often: Be a role model. This applies to emotions, too,” explain the experts at the American Psychological Association in their guide on how to talk to children about difficult news and tragedies. (If your anger or worries threaten to overwhelm you or distract you from your child, you might not be ready to have this conversation yet.)
Another risk is that your feelings might add to or replace the ones children are already experiencing.
“A serious pitfall is that we might burden them with our adult concerns, raising new questions and fears for them, rather than helping them deal with questions and fears they already have,” explains the ESR guide. “We might simply find ourselves talking over their heads, answering questions that weren’t asked, providing information that isn’t useful, satisfying our need to ‘give’ children something rather than satisfying their need to be heard and understood.”
As a result, ESR suggests limited expressions of emotion, such as, “You seem sad when we talk about this. I feel sad, too.” This approach avoids the pitfalls mentioned above while demonstrating acceptance, showing empathy, and not denying what you’re feeling.

Where there is tragedy, there is also heroism-acts by police officers, doctors, or ordinary citizens that restore our faith in humanity right when it is shaken. The forces of good spring into action with their love, support, and generosity. In Paris, for example, many restaurant and shop owners opened their doors and sheltered pedestrians as the attacks were going on and through the night.
A quote from Mister Rogers is often cited after tragedies to make this point beautifully:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers-so many caring people in this world.”

Entire systems exist for this very purpose, such as the Red Cross or the study of earthquake-proof architecture. The University of Michigan Health System encourages parents to use tragedy as an opportunity to educate kids on all the ways people are working to keep us safe. The message is: There are good people all around you.

When we feel the pain of others, compassion motivates us to help and to transform that pain into a feeling of connection and support. Encouraging kids to do something about what they’re feeling can give them an outlet and restore their sense of control.Some suggestions might include:
Writing letters to victims and their families.
Sending thank you notes to doctors, paramedics, firefighters, or police.
Setting up a community study group to learn more about the issue.
Organizing a town meeting to create an action plan.
Writing a letter to the editor.
Raising money for charity.
“You can help children find a way to step out of their position of powerlessness. You can tell them honestly that their concerns are quite healthy because people’s concern is the first step toward doing something to make the world safer,” explains the ESR guide.
9. Know when to seek outside help
What does a “normal” reaction to tragedy look like?
There may be no normal, but experts seem to agree that if more than three months have passed and your child is still suffering-from anxiety, distraction, fear, hopelessness, sleep problems, nightmares, sadness, angry outbursts, or headaches-it might be time to consult a mental health professional. Every child is different, and how she reacts will depend on factors such as how close to home the tragedy was, whether she was traumatized in the past, and her general level of mental health.

What does a “normal” reaction to tragedy look like?
There may be no normal, but experts seem to agree that if more than three months have passed and your child is still suffering-from anxiety, distraction, fear, hopelessness, sleep problems, nightmares, sadness, angry outbursts, or headaches-it might be time to consult a mental health professional. Every child is different, and how she reacts will depend on factors such as how close to home the tragedy was, whether she was traumatized in the past, and her general level of mental health.

Coping with Trauma and Stress in the Face of Wildfires

As wildfires rage across Southern California, many parents with babies and young children will be affected. Whether you’re in an evacuation zone or in an area where you can see, smell or sense the smoke, adults and kids alike will feel the stress. Some may be significantly impacted. Here are some tips for parents of babies and young children to help with the whirl of emotions and anxiety you may be experiencing.

Follow safety advice and evacuation orders issued by local officials.

Collect emergency supplies you may need: water, canned goods, paper products, medications, and batteries. Don’t forget diapers, formula and baby-friendly foods as well. If you can’t find bottled water, fill as many containers as you can. Fill your gas tank, withdraw some cash from the bank, and identify your evacuation route and nearby shelters. If you are told to evacuate, then gather what you need and do so.

Pay attention to your facial expression and body language.

Your baby or young child is watching your nonverbal cues to decide whether they are safe. When you can, take a moment to breathe, un-knit your brow, and relax your shoulders. These small physical shifts go a long way in creating a solid sense of safety for your child.

Notice your tone.

It’s perfectly normal during this time to have anxiety in your voice, but your baby senses your fear (as early as 3 months, according to research). If everyone is physically safe, try to focus on that. By being aware of your tone, and keeping your voice calm, you can help your little one feel safe.

Keep routines consistent.

You will surely be stressed and overwhelmed with prepping or packing. But try to keep your young child’s daily schedule as normal and consistent as possible. Knowing what to expect can help children feel physically and emotionally safe—and it might help you feel more grounded as well.

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‘What do new mothers do all day?’

by Anne Rust


A new mother looked at me recently during a conversation we were having about sleep deprivation during the beginning of baby’s life.

As a postpartum advisor and doula, I talk to a lot of new mamas.

But I hear all the time from women in the midst of transition to motherhood who are struggling to get their little ones to sleep and to respond to the demands of infant life.

This mama looked at me in desperation and asked, “So do you just not get anything done then??”

Mamas, I want to tell you the truth.

And here it is: You will not get anything done when you are home with a baby.

And anyone who told you otherwise is not being very forthcoming (or perhaps they just have a lousy memory).

You might get yourself fed.

You might get yourself dressed (then again, you might not).

You might take a walk (it makes baby happy).

You might have a short phone conversation or start a load of laundry, neither of which you will finish.

This is your new mom normal.

So what are you doing all day?

Not much that can be measured, really.

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Four Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Ignore or Punish Toddler Tantrums

by Sarah Ockwell-Smith Parenting Author


Popular parenting wisdom advises dealing with toddler tantrums in one of two ways. Ignore the ‘attention seeking behaviour’ and reward the toddler when they are good, or discipline the toddler by punishing them through exclusion. The naughty step and time out are commonplace in millions of homes around the world. Do they really work though? Child psychology and neuroscience says otherwise. Here are four reasons why you may want to reconsider your response the next time your toddler has a tantrum.

1. Toddlers can’t help tantruming.
Toddlers tantrum for one simple reason, their brains are not like adults. The immature connections in their brain don’t afford them the same emotion control as us. Our sophisticated brains allow us to control our impulses, act in a way that we know to be socially acceptable and calm our emotions before we become violent or out of control. Toddlers physically can’t do this. When they tantrum they are not being naughty or manipulative, they’re just being toddlers struggling with big feelings, poor communication skills and even poorer emotion regulation skills. To us it may seem ridiculous to tantrum over the colour of a cup or the shape sandwiches are cut into, but to a toddler these things are as important as paying our rent or our mortgage is to us. Just because it’s not ‘big stuff’ to us, it doesn’t mean it isn’t to the toddler.

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The Complex Lives of Babies

Complex Babies


The idea that new babies are empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge of the world around them doesn’t sound unreasonable. With their unfocused eyes and wrinkly skin, tiny humans sometimes look more like amoebas than complex beings.

Yet scientists have built a body of evidence, particularly over the last three decades, that suggests this is patently untrue. “When kids are born, they’re already little scientists exploring the world,” said the filmmaker Estela Renner via a video conference from Brazil before a recent screening of her new documentary The Beginning of Life (streaming on Netflix) at the World Bank in Washington, D.C.

That’s something Renner, a Brazilian mother of three, discovered as she spoke with early-childhood experts and parents in nine countries around the world about the impact a child’s environment in the first few years of life has on not only her physical development, but her cognitive, social, and emotional development, too. “I didn’t know that kids were not blank slates,” she said. “It changed the way I look at babies.” If more people recognized that fact, the way communities and policymakers think about and invest in the early years of life might be different.

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10 Things to Say Instead of ‘Stop Crying’


10 Things to Say Instead of 'Stop Crying'

As a parent, you deal with a LOT of feelings on a daily basis. Right? And sometimes, it can all get to be just a little bit much! When you’ve had what seems like hours of multiple people crying at you, the temptation to make it stop is high!

We’ve all said it, or at least thought it. ‘Stop crying! Just stop!’

Or maybe you heard it as a child?

“Don’t be silly”

“Shh, everyone is looking at you”

“Stop that noise, right now!”

“Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!”

But what if I told you that every time you dismiss or minimise your child’s feelings, you actually make your job harder. You very rarely succeed at making them stop anyway, and it’s more likely that they will need more support from you in the future rather than less. If you don’t hear the message they are trying to send you, the messenger just gets louder and louder until you do. Children are looking for empathy and understanding. If they don’t get it, they’ll keep trying.

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