How to Talk to Kids and Teens About World Trauma

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.

11 Comments

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?

Reply
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.

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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.

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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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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!

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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.

Reply
Nikki

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

Reply

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Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare

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