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How to Talk to Children and Teens After a Traumatic Event

The tragedy at Rustic Ridge in August shook our community to its core. On top of the tragic loss of 6 lives, many in the neighborhood were displaced, including families and children. In the face of tragic events like what happened in the Rustic Ridge neighborhood, we are left grappling with a wide range of emotions, from fear and confusion to sadness and anger. Children and teens, just like adults, experience these emotions deeply, but they may lack the emotional vocabulary and life experience to fully process them.

That's where you come in. By offering a safe and empathetic space for discussion, by using age-appropriate language, and by validating their emotions, you can play a vital role in helping them navigate the complex terrain of their feelings. Whether you're a parent, teacher, mentor, or simply someone who cares deeply about the well-being of the young people in your life, knowing how to approach these difficult conversations is paramount.

How Traumatic Events Impact Kids

Traumatic events often shatter the sense of security that children and teens rely on. The world, once perceived as a relatively safe and predictable place, can suddenly appear uncertain and perilous. This loss of psychological safety can be profoundly unsettling.

After witnessing, experiencing, or even hearing about a traumatic event, some of the following impacts may occur.

Emotional distress

Traumatic events often trigger a whirlwind of emotions in young people. Fear, sadness, anger, and confusion are common reactions, but the way these emotions manifest can vary widely. Some kids and teens may become withdrawn, struggling to express their feelings, while others might exhibit disruptive behavior or become excessively clingy. These reactions are their natural way of coping with the overwhelming emotions they are experiencing.

Cognitive and behavioral changes

Trauma can disrupt a child or teen's cognitive processes, affecting their ability to concentrate and make sense of the world around them. They may have difficulty focusing in school, completing tasks, or retaining information. Some children and teens may become more irritable, aggressive, or impulsive, while others may withdraw socially and isolate themselves from friends and family.

Fear and anxiety

Trauma can instill deep-seated fears and anxieties in children and teens. They may develop phobias related to the traumatic event or become hypervigilant, constantly scanning their environment for potential threats. These fears can significantly impact their daily lives and activities.

Sleep disturbances

Sleep disturbances are common among children and teenagers who have experienced traumatic events. They may have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing nightmares related to the traumatic incident. These sleep disruptions can lead to increased fatigue and emotional distress.

Re-establishing Psychological Safety

In the aftermath of a traumatic event, re-establishing psychological safety is a critical step in helping children and teens cope with their emotions and navigate the path toward healing. Psychological safety refers to the feeling of emotional security, trust, and comfort within one's environment and relationships.

Encourage open and honest communication, letting them know that they can express their thoughts and feelings without judgment. Creating a safe space for them to share their experiences and emotions allows them to process what has happened and fosters a sense of trust. Be patient and empathetic as they share, offering validation for their emotions and experiences. This reassures them that their feelings are valid and understood, further contributing to their psychological safety.

Tips for Talking to Kids about a Traumatic Event

Discussing a traumatic event with children requires sensitivity and care. Here are some valuable tips for guiding these challenging conversations:

  • Create a Safe Space: Ensure you are in a quiet, private space where the child feels safe and comfortable. Eliminate distractions and give them your undivided attention.

  • Use Age-Appropriate Language: Tailor your language and explanations to the child's age and developmental level. Avoid using complex or frightening terminology, and provide simple, concrete explanations.

  • Listen Actively: Encourage the child to express their thoughts and feelings. Actively listen without interrupting, offering empathy and validation. Let them know it's okay to feel what they're feeling.

  • Answer Questions Honestly: Be truthful in your responses, but provide information at a level they can understand. It's okay to say, "I don't know" when you don't have an answer.

  • Encourage Expression: Children may not always express their emotions verbally. Encourage them to draw, write, or engage in other creative activities to express themselves.

  • Validate Emotions: Let them know it's okay to feel scared, sad, or angry. Avoid dismissing their emotions or telling them not to feel a certain way.

  • Limit Exposure to Media: Shield them from graphic or distressing images and limit exposure to news coverage, which can be overwhelming. Monitor the content they consume.

  • Offer Reassurance: Let them know that you are there for them, and that they can always come to you with questions or concerns. Reiterate your love and support.

  • Seek Professional Help: If a child's emotional distress persists or is significantly impacting their day-to-day functioning, consider seeking the assistance of a mental health professional who specializes in trauma therapy and working with children.

Trauma Therapy for Children and Teens

In the wake of tragedy, people of all ages may require additional support to navigate the complex emotions they are experiencing. At Westmoreland Psychotherapy Associates, we are committed to providing the emotional support needed for our community to heal and thrive. Our team of experienced therapists specializes in various trauma therapy modalities, including EMDR, CBT, and other evidence-based methods.

If you have a child or teenager in your life who is struggling to process a traumatic event, we are here to help. Our compassionate therapists are trained to work with young people, providing a safe and understanding environment where they can express their feelings and begin the journey toward healing. Reach out to us today to get started.


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