Helping Traumatized Children
1. Should I talk about the traumatic event?
Do not be afraid to talk about the traumatic event. Children do not benefit from 'not thinking about it' or 'putting it out of their minds.' If a child senses that her caregivers are upset about the event, she will not bring it up. In the long run, this only makes the child's recovery more difficult. A good rule of thumb is to let the child guide when you talk about it. If the child doesn't ask about or mention it, don't bring it up on your own, but when the child brings it up or seems to be thinking about it (see below), don't avoid discussion.
Listen to the child, answer questions, provide comfort and support. We often have no adequate explanations about senseless death or traumatic events. It is just fine to tell children that you do not know why something happened or that you get confused and upset by it, too. In the end, listening and comforting a child without avoiding or over-reacting will have long-lasting positive effects on the child's ability to cope with trauma.
2. How should I talk about the event?
Use age-appropriate language and explanations. The timing and language used are important. Immediately following the trauma, the child will not be very capable of processing complex or abstract information (see Table). As the child gets further away from the event, she will be able to focus longer, digest more and make more sense of what has happened. Sometimes young children act as if they have not 'heard' anything you have said. It takes many individual many moments of sad clarity or the reality of the trauma to actually sink in for young children. Between these moments of harsh reality, children use a variety of coping techniques – some of which can be confusing or upsetting for adults.
During this long process, the child continues to 're-experience' the traumatic event. In play, drawing and words, the child may repeat, re-enact and re-live some elements of the traumatic loss. Surviving adults will hear children ask the same questions again and again. They may be asked to describe 'what happened' again and again. The child may develop profound 'empathic' concerns for others experiencing trauma, including cartoon characters and animals. "Is Mickey Mouse scared?" Or as they put their stuffed animals under the bed, they may explain "They have to go hide because the bad guy is coming with a gun."