7 Ways To Help Children Cope With Traumatic Events
The Robb Elementary School mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas shook the country. One of the 21 victims was Amerie Jo Garza, a 10-year-old Girl Scout who posthumously received the highest award for valor in Girl Scouting: the Bronze Cross. This rare honor is awarded for “saving or attempting to save life at the risk of the Girl Scout's own life," according to the Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas. As the country mourns, it is important we help children directly and indirectly impacted by such tragedies understand how to cope.
To learn how we can better help children through such difficult times, we spoke with Dr. Renee A. Exelbert, a psychologist who specializes in grief, bereavement, and trauma. According to Exelbert, adults can always ensure the important aspects of a child’s inner-world continue to thrive — such as their play, their friendships, and their day to day activities. Below is more advice on how adults can discuss traumatic events children may see or hear on the news, or experience themselves.
1Allow Children To Feel Heard
If a child approaches you after seeing or hearing of a traumatic event, show them that you are comfortable hearing whatever it is they have to say. “It is pertinent for children to know that their fears and anxieties are valued, respected, and taken seriously,” Exelbert tells CircleAround.
“By asking the child to tell us what they have seen or heard, we establish the baseline for their experience,” Exelbert says. “That is, we start with the place where they are at, using the information they give us.”
She suggests asking their opinion on matters, and encouraging them to ask us questions about the situation. She also emphasizes adults take what is said seriously, and to never punish a child or make them feel like they’ve gotten the situation all wrong. “It is most important to acknowledge their feelings, let them know that we appreciate that they came to us, and let them know that we hear them and will try to address their concerns,” Exelbert adds.
3Use Age-Appropriate Words and Phrases
The right vocabulary will also make a huge difference. “Use age appropriate words and phrases, avoid euphemisms, and stick with your child’s level of cognitive understanding," Exelbert says. “Give small, manageable pieces of information, and avoid lengthy intellectual terms.”
4Be Cognizant of Your Own Reactions
Exelbert explains that while it’s important to be present and open to conversation, any non-verbal communication can make an impact as well. She suggests using an open body stance that is non-threatening and inviting, using direct eye contact, and using non-verbal gestures that communicate safety and warmth.
“We can further establish an environment of safety by sitting close to our child,” Exelbert explains, “giving them our undivided attention — not being distracted or on our cell phones — and using physical touch, such as a caress or a hug.”
5Put Traumatic Events Into Context
While natural disasters, mass shootings, and other events are a reality, adults can help reduce fear by highlighting the rarity of these events. Exelbert says, “We can remind our children that after these terrible events, we learn from them, and this helps us with safety planning, such as increasing security in schools, having lockdown drills, and figuring out better ways to keep us safe.”
6Promote a Sense of Empowerment
Adults can help children take a more active role in their safety by encouraging them to do things like write letters to their principal, county legislators, or government officials, start a safety club in school, or teach them to be alert and mindful of their surroundings.
Exelbert says this also extends to positive moments of empowerment, such as getting them involved in a sport, which promotes community, physical activity, and provides a chance for them to channel their anxieties into other outcomes.
7Remind Them That Adults Are There To Help Keep Them Safe
“This sense of safety is always highlighted by our physical and emotional presence, with touch and closeness for safety, and openness in our desire to respond to their questions and fears,” Exelbert tells CircleAround. “We need to remind children that we will do everything in our power to keep them safe, and that they are loved and cared for.”
The Bottom Line
Adults can make a profound impact on a child who is dealing with the effects of traumatic events by listening, showing tenderness, and by keeping them safe. By following these tips you can better prepare your child for challenging situations ahead, and be there for them while they learn to cope.