How to Talk to Kids about Traumatic Events and Natural Disasters

This podcast will focus on how to talk to kids when tragedy strikes- school shootings, traumatic weather events, local fires, acts of terror or other disasters. What do we say? What do we do? What if our children are feeling particularly anxious and vulnerable? Dr. Robyn Silverman and Karen Young talk about best practices, tips and scripts so that parents and key adults know how to respond so that our children feel safe and supported.

School shootings, traumatic weather events, local fires and acts of terror– When the world is struck with a catastrophic event, it is natural to want to shield our children from the effects of it. We want to keep their innocence in tact- allowing them to grow up carefree and unfettered—feeling safe and calm wherever they go. We might wonder, if we just don’t talk about it- could our children remain in their happy little bubble for the time being?

The problem is—we live in a world where children receive messages about traumatic events from many different avenues- it’s not just the news that we can easily turn off—or even the 24/7 access to the internet that provides a play by play as negative stories develop. It’s also that different families have different rules about such access- with multiple kids of various ages in their homes who are permitted to have more access- so that might mean you send your blithely innocent child to school, ignorant of the scary events that might have occurred, only to have them bombarded with the news from a more informed (perhaps not accurately so) child on the bus—or from a group of kids in class.

Knowing that something has happened but not having anyone to explain it in age-appropriate terms and how it relates to our specific children can be frightening to anyone. We all need context, assurance and our own concerns addressed by someone we trust—our kids actually need information to feel safe and– as a parent or educator who knows the child, you are the perfect person to have this conversation with them. I’ve talked about this on national TV shows and in written press but I thought it was important to talk about it on my podcast—especially through the lens of anxiety as many kids have trouble dealing with such large-scale events.

My next guest tells us that since you know your child best, “it’s important to manage the conversation (Or, shall we say, tailor it) based on who they are, what they already know, and what it means for them.”

Karen Young has been on our podcast before- talking about anxiety. In fact, her podcast episode is in the top 5 most downloaded episodes of How to Talk to Kids about Anything, of all time. She is back today to discuss with me how we can talk to kids about traumatic world events. Karen has worked as a psychologist in private practice and in educational settings. She founded the popular website, Hey Sigmund, which attracts millions of readers each year. Karen is a sought-after speaker, both at home in Australia and internationally. She is the author of ‘Hey Warrior’, a book for kids to help them understand anxiety and find their ‘brave’. The book has now been translated into a number of languages.

The podcast provides:

  1. How different children react to catastrophic news
  2. How you know when children’s feelings have gone from a more typical reaction to one that is falling in the anxiety range?
  3. Key steps for parents or educators to do first when they hear of a catastrophic event.
  4. What to say in an age-appropriate way when a catastrophic event happens or when your child asks about catastrophic events.
  5. Exercises to follow if your child is particularly anxious about catastrophic events
  6. What children can do to feel helpful when a catastrophic event has occurred.

Important Messages:

  • Something can trigger anxiety are memories- even if they aren’t memories that actually happened to them- it could be a story they hear, something from the news, a movie. It doesn’t have to be real.
  • Emotional experiences can lay themselves down in a sensory way. They are not accessed as words they heard- so they often don’t know why they are feeling anxious after they hear about a catastrophic event.
  • Can’t just say “you’re fine, there’s nothing to be scared of- there’s nothing happening here” because in their minds, they had a passing thought that triggered their sensory memory. They might not articulate it- it happens on the neural level- not conscious word level. They don’t know why they are anxious.
  • Anxiety can become a problem when it causes problems- withdrawn, talk about it all the time, affect sleep. We need to check in with them.
  • Script: “You know what happened…how do you feel? Is this something you would like to talk about…I’m here if you want to talk…because this is a scary thing to happen.” Make it accessible.
  • An older child/teen might turn to peers over parents. Ask “what’s the talk at school?” or sitting next to them on the bed at night- might open up then because they feel safe and there’s no more noise. Safe environment to access you.
  • The primary question for kids is—what does this mean for me and the people I love?
  • One way to help them feel safe- figure out the differences between where we live and where the traumatic event had happened.
  • Also- people have jobs to look at the event and figure out how we can be safer in the future. And there are people who work behind the scenes. This helps the kids to see the differences and know that people are there to help and make things safer. If you have trouble finding the differences, the idea of the helpers is extra important. They are working on it when you are at school- and they are working on it around the clock.
  • Let them know that “we feel safe enough for both of us. I wouldn’t let you go to school if I didn’t think you were safe enough. This is scary. I know you’re scared and I’m scared too. But I feel really safe sending you to school because I trust that they’ve learned what they need to learn and they’ve got this.” Communicate trust—that we feel safe enough.
  • Older children: If you see the event is effecting your older child a great deal- NAME IT. “This is scary. This is a big thing. I feel scared by it as well. It shook me. I wonder how you feel about it because I noticed that you are . This is normal. When something like this happens, when they get a scare like this, even if this didn’t happen to us, we can’t help thinking- could it happen to me? To us? It’s normal. I get it. I went through it too. I’m wondering what is happening for you.” If we can get them to talk- that would be great because getting them to talk gives the situation context. They start to make important connections.
  • Need to validate their response- to feel whatever they feel- because that’s okay. Answer their questions. Share how you felt about it. This can open the way for them.
  • Script: “This is really scary and people are going to be shaken by this for a while. I get that. I feel safe with you going to school and I understand that might make a difference to you but I wanted you to know. I would not send you to school if I didn’t feel safe.”
  • STRATEGY: Gratitude. Memories make people ruminate. And the more they access these memories, the more accessible they become. Get into a gratitude practice. These grateful thoughts replaces negative thoughts with something that is less compatible with anxiety. Use a journal or jar- 3 things before bed- creates a pathway to memories or images- that are not part of this negative thinking. Short term strategy.
  • STRATEGY: Mindfulness and exercise. People who get stuck have less of a specific chemical in the brain- less able to stop negative thinking- one of the ways to get more of this chemical is moving. Strengthen from the inside out. This protects the brain. Long-term strategy. Not get into the cycle in the first place.
  • STRATEGY: 3 ways to be kind to others. Gets you out of thinking of yourself. Ruminating about how things affect you.
  • STRATEGY: Charity for those in need. Do a job to help. Help them to feel like they are making a difference. Instead of focusing on the tragedy- focus on the ways that you can ease the burden of those who are being challenged by it.
  • How do you know when your child needs help? When there has been a time period and things are not getting better- and it’s disrupting their lives, you know your child needs help. If it intrudes on day to day life. Everyone needs support sometimes. Normalize getting help. It’s not helpless- it just needs some extra support.  Maybe getting different techniques can help. Sometimes children need a different perspective. Sometimes kids might need some help because they need to hear from someone; “you know I hear this from lots of kids your age.” They need it normalized so they don’t feel “weird.” Even this can dilute the anxiety.
  • When it’s just parents trying to help a child, sometimes the child just feels “of course you are going to say that- you’re my mom/dad.” A different perspective can be really valuable- “I hear this from lots of kids your age and they are really amazing, intelligent, strong, brave kids. There’s nothing broken about them- it’s really understandable to feel like this- here’s what we need to do.” Sometimes when another person says it- it’s heard. All of a sudden it’s big news (even though you’ve been saying it for years!)
  • Don’t worry about saying the wrong thing. You won’t break them by saying the wrong thing. It’s better to have the conversation. Once the words are out there, even when something doesn’t land the way you thought it would, you can clean that up.
  • When it does damage—is not having the conversation at all. Kids are putting their own endings on it- they are accessing those images and those memories without context.
  • Teenagers might roll their eyes- but it will still land on them that you are there for them.
  • Normalize it. This is scary. I felt like this when I heard about it. So those fears don’t grow into “I must be weird or broken or if I think it, it will happen.” You can say; “I understand you are scared, I’ve been scared too and that’s okay. It’s just our body’s way of protecting us. When we think about it, it’s like your brain is onguard to respond to it—but it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen- it’s just your brain saying; “did you hear that this happened? What if that happens to us?” (And then get into differences and helpers, what we can do to help and gratitude.) Share your experience- and normalize it.

Notable Quotables:

  • “Traumatic events, even if not experienced by the child, can be laid down as memories that become accessible. And when these memories are accessed, they can be enough to start an anxiety response. As parents, we need to give them context so that these memories aren’t accessed as raw information. The less context, the more scary it is for them and the more it can ignite the anxiety.”
  • “When kids see something really frightening or raw on TV or hear about it from friends, that becomes an emotional experience. Emotional experiences lay themselves down as sensory experiences- they don’t lay themselves down as words.”
  • “Emotional experiences are meant to drive us away from threat or risk. When it’s working as it should, it’s perfect. But it can drive us away from the wrong things, when there is no real threat, if the experience isn’t processed.”
  • When do you know when a child’s response towards a traumatic event has fallen into the anxiety range? “Something is a problem when it causes problems.”
  • “When a traumatic event happens, the primary question for kids will be, ‘what does this mean for me and the people I love?’ That means; ‘Am I safe? Are you safe? Can this happen to us? How do you know?’ They need the detail—but only enough that they feel safe.”
  • “Don’t avoid your kids questions or dismiss how they feel. If we do that, it’s not going to make those feelings or questions go away. It makes the questions more intrusive for them.”
  • Script: “Do we live in a place where ___________ happens (i.e. weather event)? And each time this happens, there are people who look at it to see what happened and to figure out how we can be safer in the future.” There is work behind the scenes.
  • “When we get our children to talk to us, it gives scary situations context. What verbalizing does is soothe the emotional side of the brain. When there are big feelings without the words, that’s really scary.”
  • “We are not looking often for a solution when we talk about things. We just feel better because we put words to the experience and give it a shape and a context and then those feelings become more containable and we make the connections we need.”
  • “Sometimes active talking is enough.”
  • “Sometimes kids just need to hear; ‘it’s okay to feel like this.’”
  • “Memories can keep the rumination going. The brain does what the brain does most. The more they think those thoughts the more accessible those thoughts become. The more they access those memories or images, the more accessible they get. Gratitude replaces, over time, those negative memories with something that is less compatible with anxiety.”
  • “When a catastrophic event happens, the world comes together. The community comes together. This is something our kids need to know. People don’t go through this alone- we rally. We join arms and hold people through as much as we can. People look after people.”
  • “Especially when something bad happens and it’s hard to explain how some people do bad things—there are more people who do good things. There is kindness. People do look after each other. Our kids might not see that. They might hear about the tragedy but not necessarily about the response—how people are coming together- that there’s an outpouring of love and support for people. We need to balance it out by letting them know about the good too.”
  • “Parents are incredibly powerful because they have the connection and they know their child.”
  • “Anxiety grows and feeds itself. What starts with ‘I wonder if this can happen to me,’ grows into “I’m so weird what if there’s something wrong with me because I just can’t stop thinking about this.’”
  • “Don’t worry about saying the wrong thing. It’s better to have the conversation and gets the words out there. What does damage is not having the conversation at all.”
  • “Normalize the feelings and have the conversation so that your kids don’t put their own ending on it that something bad is going to happen.”
  • Dr. Robyn says: “Talking about traumatic events is a healing process, not something that triggers the event to happen to them.”
  • “There is a fear that ‘if I talk about it, it will make them think it more.’ But if they’re thinking it, they’re thinking it. Talking about it won’t make them think it worse.”
  • “Talking is a healing process because it connects words to feelings.”
  • “You don’t even need to have the words before you go in to have the conversation. Open it up and the words will come. The kids will ask questions and they will have the responses.”
  • “Just saying; ‘I get it and I have felt that way too’ can be really healing.”

Traumatic events and natural disasters, even if not experienced by the child, can be laid down as memories that can feed anxiety in kids. Bottom line? Talk about it. It’s a healing process, says @HeySigmund on #talktokids this week.
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