How to talk to your child about traumatic events: Advice from a Hennepin Healthcare psychologist
As stories of another mass school shooting dominate the news, parents of young children may find themselves struggling to explain these traumatic events to their kids. Scanner News spoke with Hennepin Healthcare child psychologist Marcia Jensen, who gave advice on how parents can approach these conversations, recognize signs of stress, and take care of their own well-being. Marcia is Director of Psychology Training and Psychology Manager.
What advice would you give to parents about talking to their kids about the traumatic events that have been in the news recently? How should they balance protecting their children from that news and addressing it?
I'm a parent to a six- and a nine-year old, so this is a conversation that I've been having with my partner at home. Right now, we're in the protecting mode – limiting access to age-inappropriate content, like seeing graphic images on TV or on social media. You're going to want to limit your own conversations with other adults in front of kids because the things that you might say and the emotions you might express about your experience might not be the information you want to convey.
They may hear about it at school. They may hear about it in the community, or they may hear about it from you. The sooner you share the information with them, the more control you have over how it's going to be addressed.
It helps to find a way that you know they might feel comfortable talking, like before bedtime, in the car, at the dinner table. You can ask them if they know about the event to identify what they understand about what happened. They might be feeling unsafe at school, so you can talk about how the majority of kids go to school every day with no bad things happening – letting them know that they're safe, how their school is taking steps to keep them safe, and going over their school’s safety plans.
Are there signs that parents should look out for, that their children may be experiencing stress from these events?
It will be pretty normal for kids to express some worry or being upset about what happened. Some kids are going to be more interested to speak about it, while others will process it more internally. You know your kids the best, so you can follow their lead and let them know you're a safe place to talk about those things.
If a few weeks have passed and they're doing things like avoiding going to school, having significant changes from their typical feelings and behaviors, or not wanting to engage in the routines that they previously enjoyed—that would be when you would want to reach out and talk to a professional for some guidance.
That's very normal. Some kids process by thinking about things or drawing or trying to listen to the adults talk about things. They might have talked about it at school and now they don't feel like they have to talk about it at home. If you see that there's a significant change in their emotional and behavioral functioning, that's when you would want to seek more support.
In some of these recent events, there's an element of racial trauma. A white supremacist in Buffalo targeted Black people. In California, a shooter targeted a church because of his anti-Taiwanese hate. What advice do you have for parents to address that aspect of it?
I think it has to be part of a broader, ongoing conversation with kids about inequities in how people are treated and giving examples of that in day-to-day life. Then you can point to these conversations and talk about how these specific events are examples of someone doing something hateful to a group based on their religion, or the color of their skin, or their specific beliefs, etc.—and none of it is OK. It’s easier if it’s an ongoing conversation.
If you are a member of one of the groups that's been targeted, it could be triggering for you as an adult or and for your family. The likelihood is that you've already been having these conversations with your family and it is good to keep doing this.
How do you suggest parents take care of themselves before and after these conversations? What should they consider with the timing and their own emotional state?
It's important for you to be in a place where you're feeling cool, calm, and collected before you start to try to have a conversation like this. If possible, you can take your chance to process before you bring up this topic with your kids. Sometimes kids surprise you and you weren't really ready to have this conversation, and it’s OK to say, This is a tough thing for me to talk about right now. I think it is really important for us to talk about, but can we talk about it a little bit later?
It will be helpful to make sure that you're engaging in regular routines to keep yourself healthy and well-functioning. That means getting regular and sufficient sleep, regular and sufficient food, and taking time to connect with other adults about this topic.
You might even limit your intake of the news to healthy levels.
It's also important for adults to help kids keep in their routine. The more that they're able to keep their regular, healthy sleeping and eating habits, get adequate exercise, be with friends and family, and feel really safe in that environment, the more likely they will just feel comfortable in that routine and less impacted by the traumatic event.
Here are some resources from the American Psychological Association to point parents toward to guide conversations about traumatic events and other hard topics and for managing their own distress: