Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

How to Talk to Kids and Teens About World Trauma

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How to Talk To Kids and Teens About World Trauma

When the world is struck with a catastrophic event, the instinct to shield our children from the effects of it is completely understandable. We want them to grow up believing that the world is pure and good and geared in their favour. We also want them to feel safe, and avoiding a discussion isn’t necessarily the way to make this happen. 

Older kids and teens will know when something big has happened whether you’re the one who tells them or not. Knowing that something has happened, but not having anybody explain things, is a really scary thing to feel for any of us. Our kids are no different. We all need context and assurance and it’s the facts that will provide this.

All kids are different. They need different information to feel safe, they look for a different level of detail and they are impacted by different parts of the story.

Nobody will know your children better than you do, so it’s important to manage the conversation based on who they are, what they already know, and what it means for them. 

With all children.

  1. The most important question.

    Whatever their age, there is likely to be one thought at the front of their minds, ‘What about me?’ This is normal and healthy and part of the way they process what has happened. They need to understand it in terms of what it means to them and for their own safety and wellbeing. Let this guide your response.

  2. Let them know that what they’re feeling makes sense.

    We’re all different and will respond to things in different ways. Whether they feel nothing at all or very deeply, let them know that whatever they’re feeling is completely okay. The only way through a feeling is straight through the middle, and this will only happen when there is gentle acceptance of whatever that feeling is. If they see that you can accept what they’re feeling, it will be easier for them to do the same.

  3. Name what you see or hear from them.

    They need to know that you get it otherwise the things you say will fall short of comforting them. Saying things like, ‘Oh don’t worry,’ or ‘Don’t be silly – nothing like that will happen here,’ though said with the best of intentions, can actually make them worry more. It might also cause them to feel shame which will only make them shut down. They’ll still feel what they’re feeling and think what they’re think but you just won’t find out about it. Whatever they’re feeling, let them know that you get it by reflecting it back to them, ‘I can see you’re feeling scared. That’s completely understandable. It’s a frightening thing to happen.

  4. And help them to put it in context.

    If they’re feeling scared, it will be because they’re noticing the similarities between themselves and the people who have been directly hurt – ages, families, the area they live in – though it might be happening out of their awareness. Explaining the differences between their circumstances and the circumstances around the event will help to ease their fear. ‘This has happened in a different place to where we live. Nothing like this has ever happened here.’ Or if you’re living where the trauma has happened, ‘When something like this happens, people work really hard to make sure that something like this never happens again. The people who do this are really great at what they do. They learn a lot about how it happened and the type of people who did it and they use that information to keep everyone safe.’

  5. Ask directly what it is they’re worried about.

    Trauma triggers all sorts of things in all of us. Sometimes these will directly relate to the event: How will they look after the people who have been hurt? Have they caught the bad guys? How did it happen? Could it happen here? Sometimes, it might be more indirect and unexpected. They might become scared of you dying or getting sick. They might worry about not being able to reach you when they need to, or of something happening while they are asleep or separated from you. Let them know that when something big happens, we can feel all kinds of things that don’t make sense but there are no silly feelings or silly things to think. Ask them what they’re thinking and give them permission to say anything they want to. 

  6. Be available.

    Let them know that they can come to you with questions, feelings, ideas and thoughts and that nothing is off-limits. Give them extra cuddles or an extra story. For older ones, spend extra time sitting on the edge of their bed at bedtime. They might raise things with you or they might not, but at least you’re there if they need to.

  7. Let them see your compassion, empathy, and resilience.

    It’s okay to let them know that you are sad for the people who have been hurt – this will nurture their empathy and compassion – but they also need to see your strength and capacity to cope with the news. 

  8. It’s okay not to have the answers they’re asking for.

    Frightening world events don’t make sense to any of us. Your children might ask questions that you don’t know the answers to, such as ‘How did it happen?’ or ‘Why do some people do awful things?’ In these cases, ‘I don’t know,’ is a perfectly reasonable answer. Sometimes it’s the only one. 

  9. Remind them of the goodness in the world.

    They need to have faith in the world and the people in it. Whenever there is trauma in the world, there are also remarkable demonstrations of solidarity and kindness, love and support for strangers. Let them hear these stories. We belong to a humanity that is good and kind. People who orchestrate traumatic events are acting against humanity, they’re not a part of it and when they strike, humanity always proves to be kinder, more generous, and stronger. Remind them.

  10. Let them feel the arms of the world around them, too.

    Let them know that when something like this happens, the world comes together to look after each other and that people from all over the world are working to make the world safer for them.

Being proactive in having the conversation with kids can ensure that you’re the one who sets the emotional tone for what has happened – not their friends, not social media and not the 6pm news. Show them that you have faith in their world and their ability to thrive in it.

According to age.

Again, all children are different, but in addition to the things mentioned above, here is a rough guide of extra things to think about according to age. 

Up to 4 years.

Small children have trouble separating facts from fantasy, so for young ones, it might be best to shield them from things as much as you can. If they have questions it’s important to answer them but only in as much detail as you need to reassure them and help them feel safe.

5-11 years.

Let your kids lead the conversation here. If they’re talking, that’s important. They want you to help them feel safe.  On the surface they’ll be asking what happened, but the driving force will be understanding what it means for them. How does it affect them? Could it happen to them? What if it happens to someone they love? How do you know it won’t happen? Does this mean we should never go anywhere else?

They’ll be looking for comfort and your answers and your willingness to talk to them will give them this. Give them the details they ask for, but you don’t need to give them more than that. Don’t lie to them or avoid their direct questions. They’ll be able to tell when you’re not being upfront and this will only make it more difficult to take comfort from your answers. They need to know that you fully understand what has happened and that you aren’t just saying whatever you ned to say to make them feel better. 

12-14 years

Because a lot of their lives happens when we aren’t there – through social media, at school, at friends’ houses – it’s difficult to know exactly how much they understand about what’s happening or what they’re worried about. Listen and they will usually show you. It will be in their questions or their misunderstandings or the incidental things they say along the way. The most important thing is letting them know that you’re there for them if they need to talk or ask questions.

They’re starting to think about things in creative, abstract ways so it can be difficult to anticipate what they’re thinking or feeling. Sometimes the way they think will surprise you.

Whatever they’re thinking is important and valid – let them know that. Let them know that this sort of thing is confusing for everyone and there’s absolutely nothing they can say or think that would be silly. What’s important is that you are there to clear up any misunderstandings or misperceptions, and give them a balanced view of what has happened. ‘It’s tragic what has happened, and I understand why you feel the way you do. The world is still a good place and you still have as much reason to feel safe now as you did before this happened.

There is no formula for how people react in these situations. Given that the emotional centres of their brains are developing at a heightened rate during adolescence, it might be that they show a greater intensity of fear, anger or sadness. They might also show no emotion at all to the news. That’s completely okay and is nothing to worry about. People feel things and respond to things in all different ways. 

Open the way for them to talk, but don’t push them if they don’t want to, ‘Did you hear about what happened? Is there anything you were wondering about or would like to talk about?’ Let them know that it doesn’t matter if there isn’t but that you’re there if they need to chat about it.

Above 14 years.

They’ll most likely be hearing a lot of information through friends and social media, so it’s important to make sure the information they have is accurate. Ask them if they’ve heard about what happened and what they know about it.

By this age, they’ll be starting to separate from you and turning to their peers to meet their needs. Don’t worry at all if they don’t want to talk about things. When they need comfort or conversation, it’s very normal for them to turn to their friends. They might want to spend more time with them or they might seem even more attached to their phone. People feel safest in groups, and at this age, their friendship groups are everything. They won’t necessarily be wanting to be with their friends to talk about things, it’s just how they find stability and comfort, which they might be in need of if the world seems crazy for a while.

Catastrophic events don’t make sense to any of us. You don’t have to have the answers so if you don’t know, it’s okay to say that. Don’t say things you don’t believe and don’t give them empty platitudes. They’re too smart and it will cheapen everything else you say. Let them know that you wish you had the answers and that you wish you could say nothing like this will happen again but that you can’t say that – nobody can. Let them know that these things are rare and remind them how their situation is different. 

Share how you feel, but don’t look to them for comfort. It will be comforting for them to know that you feel the things they feel, but that need to know that you also feel safe and strong and that you have faith in the world and its people.

Sometimes, with this age group it is best to have these sort of conversations when they don’t have to make eye contact – while you are in the car together or while you’re cooking dinner. Others might like to feel you close. Let them take the lead on that.

And finally …

When the world breaks the light pours in. It’s always been this way. There will always be those who try to assault our humanity, but they are not the ones who are a part of it. The truth is that we belong to a humanity that is good and kind and stands solid against those who act against it. This is what our children need to know.

There’s something else they need to know. When things happen out of our control, it can feel disempowering for all of us – the questions, the helplessness, the lack of control over what happened. Give them back their power by letting them know that they have a vital role in building a world that is safe and good to be in. Empower them by letting them know that their voice, their thoughts, and the way they are in the world all matter. They need to know that it’s because of them and people like them that the spirit of love, kindness and compassion will always be stronger than anything that tries to weaken it.

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11 Comments

Cathy Fuselier

I generally love your articles and share them with the parents at my school. In this case, I haven’t. While I agree, of course, that individuals who commit acts of terrorism are acting in a monstrous way, they are still a part of humanity. To represent humanity as all good is not realistic. Part of what makes us human is our intellect and our free will and people make bad choices…sometimes for what they consider to be good reasons.

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Hey Sigmund

Cathy, I respect your position, but by definition, humanity is kind, good, and altruistic. Whether or not we achieve it perfectly, this is what humanity represents. This is what we strive for. This has never been clearer than it is now. The one good thing that has come out of recent events is the way people from all different religions, races, cultures and beliefs are coming together and standing in strength and love against those who would see our humanity broken and divided. I have never felt the world stand side by side with such love and force. I wonder how those who leverage such relentless and brutal attacks on humanity can also be accepted as being a part of it.

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Nikki

I also disagree with the way you are representing ‘humanity’. another definition of humanity is “The totality of human beings”. Although I agree humans and humanity are essentially good, I believe it is dangerous to separate out anyone from it. When we create a sense of ‘otherness’, it becomes okay to hate and harm those ‘others’. I want my children to know that those who commit atrocities need compassion just as those who have suffered atrocities. when my child sees someone being bullied at school, I want them to understand that the bully is suffering just as much as the one being bullied, if for different reasons and in different ways. although this never makes their actions acceptable, it gives a basis to enact real change in the world. In my opinion, the best way to pacify a bully is to let them know that you still love them unconditionally. there are consequences for their actions, but this does not change the love that you feel. “I have decide to stick with love. Hate is to great a burden to bear.” -Dr. MLK, Jr

Best wishes,
Nikki

PS Otherwise I found this article wonderfully helpful. Thank you!

Reply
Hey Sigmund

I think this is a great conversation to have between adults, but the focus of this article is to find the way to explain what has happened to children in a way that helps them to feel safe and preserve their faith in humanity. When it comes to world trauma, particularly acts of terrorism, the events and issues are complex but the message needs to be a simple one that speaks to any feelings of fear or insecurity that children might have in response. It’s about helping them to make sense of things that are frightening and extreme and that make no sense at all. One way to achieve this is by explaining that these people aren’t representative of humanity and that there is nothing we consider acceptable or valid about their actions. In no way does this mean that we are giving our kids permission to hate or harm anyone. In fact, we’re telling them just the opposite – that acts that are hateful or harmful are not okay.

Talking to children about compassion is important and I absolutely agree with you about doing this in relation to most situations, such as the school bully, but the events we’re talking about are extreme. Given the brutality of action and the depth of trauma we’re talking about, talking about unconditional love and compassion in the context of feeling it for those who commit these particular atrocities may possibly confuse the message that makes our children feel safe.

Of course it’s never my intention to say that we should underrate the capacity of our kids to understand the complexities of humanity. They have an amazing capacity for understanding, but these are issues that even many of us as adults are wrestling with. As always of course, it’s for the parents and teachers and other important adults to decide what’s best for the children in their care. I completely respect your point of view and I understand where you’re coming from. Like I said, it’s a great conversation to have and I’m grateful for your voice in this.

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Nikki

Thank you for your thoughtful perspective Karen! I believe this is a very valuable discussion to have. 🙂

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Kari

Thank you for this article. My kids are dealing with the trauma of what happened in Paris. At the same time we had two dear friends get hit by a driver in a road rage incident. One of them died instantly and the other has a long recovery ahead. My kids 9 year old twins have been having trouble sleeping, low appetite but otherwise ok. One expressed to us this morning her dream last night was that Me and her Dad had died. I didn’t have this article but luckily I had read alot of others you’ve posted on other topics. I handled this pretty close to how you’ve described. I will keep listening to them as they talk. I need to follow up with my teenager (15yr.) I think he needs some extra attention. I thought the not coming to me was ok. I see now that it’s not. Thank you again

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Hey Sigmund

You’re very welcome. I’m sorry that you and your family are feeling the pain of losing someone important to you. It sounds as though you are doing a wonderful job supporting them through this and giving them everything they need to get through this. I hope you also have someone you can turn to when you need to. Wishing gentle healing for you and your family.

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Kari

My husband and both have a support system in place, and we have each other. I understand after many failures to support ourselves first! We are all healing together after this has happened. I appreciate the nod of support that means more than you can know. Thank you again for all that you put on this blog. There have been too many helpful articles to name.

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Karin Hill

Thank you for a thoughtful, sensitive article on how to respond to children when there is a major tragedy. They may also wonder how this event differs from the daily violence shown on evening news if they are unfortunate enough to see it.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Thanks Karin. And yes you’re absolutely right – there is a lot on the evening news that can be frightening for young children, particularly because it’s real.

Reply
tu

I have a lot of thoughts but my main one is, surely if we’re teaching children how to deal with disasters, we could include actually counteracting the damage done? Even a tiny donation to disaster relief charities can show our children that we are NOT helpless, that we can make a difference. Positive action also says more about humanity than theorising — as does the existence of these charities. If we want our children to have faith in the world, don’t they first need faith in themselves?

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