When something scary happens in a place that is supposed to be safe? There’s a lot to consider:
PART 3: What’s the best way to communicate and discuss trauma with teens?
Shielding your child from news and information is not an option. Having conversations about it though sometimes feel uncertain or intimidating. But, these conversations are a must. Talking makes it easier to make sense of scary things. In the absence of true information, kids’ imaginations will fill in the gaps with worst-case scenarios. Starting conversations and keeping the lines of communication are key in helping kids navigate challenging or traumatic situations. Although the “how to” part is important, the goal is to provide a sense of safety and calm while connecting and being curious. Tone, timing and delivery are as important as the words you say! Having hard conversations is hard and that is ok, they are supposed to be!! Learning to have important, but hard conversations is super-skill that builds resilience.
Approaching the Conversation
- Check in with yourself and how you are feeling so you don’t inadvertently transmit anxiety to your child (see Part 2).
- Talk to your spouse, partner, or other caregiver to decide the language and the message. Mixed messages are even more confusing!!
- Remind yourself it doesn’t have to be done in one sitting and that likely it will take many. Consistency and repetition help build trust and strengthen the message in a positive way.
- Teens typically feel more comfortable discussing hard things while not having to make or sustain eye contact. Try going on a drive, shooting hoops, cooking, eating, watching a show together or at night right before bed when it’s dark.
- Similarly, having a conversation while doing an activity, especially one that is rhythmic (coloring, knitting, music, shooting baskets, cooking) feeds the calm.
- Reminder!!: You Teen may or may not have strong feelings about what happened.
Setting the Tone
- The best time to start a conversation is when your teen brings it up, but that doesn’t always happen.
- Avoid starting a conversation with, “We need to talk,” or “This is really important,” or “This is really scary.
- Let conversations occur naturally and potentially in small parts. It’s normal to take time to digest information. They may walk away and still be processing, this is one way they understand and manage how much they can take in at a time.
- It’s ok not to have the right answer and let your child or teen know that you will take the steps to get the needed information.
- Let your teen know that even though it’s hard to talk about, you’re there to listen, no matter what and that there is nothing you can’t handle.
- If you find yourself becoming emotional after starting the conversation, normalize that it’s OK to have these emotions. Name it and pause. If needed, take a pause to let yourself have the feeling and then refocus.
- Have a spouse or a partner to lend calm so your child or teen feels safe with both of you. Or you might decide your spouse, partner or other trusted adult would be better in this situation.
- Tune into your teen’s nonverbal behavior. If they have hit their limits you can say, “I know this is a lot. It’s ok if you are done for now. I am here to talk or just listen whenever you are ready.” Let them know that they can text you if that is easier.
- Allow breaks. Eye contact is not necessary. Sometimes eye contact can make the conversation feel too intense.
- Communicate calm. Consider making your voice “low and slow, ” meaning talk slowly and in a normal tone of voice, which naturally communicates safety and calm and gives you calm.
Having the Conversation
- Find out what they know, without interrogating them, by making a brief statement or observation. This allows you to correct any mis-information as well as understand your child’s perspective and find out what they already know.
- I know that what happened at school was scary for a lot of people. How do you feel about it __________.
- I wonder if your friends are struggling and talking a lot about what happened at school?
- Provide basic information and use words that are developmentally appropriate.
- Give your child and teen with reassurance about their safety if needed (i.e., what plans are in place) and what they can do if appropriate. If they seem fine, let it go. Trust that you know your kid best.
- Validate feelings and use active or reflective listening first to make sure you understand and that you are trying to understand. When kids feel validated and understood, they are more likely to feel safe and willing to share.
- Listen to what your teen has to say. Let your teen’s answers guide your conversations. Essentially, take your cues from your kids about how much information they want or need. As they process traumatic events, different questions and thoughts arise at different times.
- Normalize all the feelings that one can have, and even not having feelings. No feeling is wrong or bad. Feelings are messengers trying to communicate information to us.
- Find out if they have concerns about the event, returning to school, dealing with friends, etc.
- Educate them about trauma and that it may take a while to soak in. This way they won’t be surprised or worried if they develop symptoms later.
- Discuss how to be a good consumer of the news and social media, identifying what are trusted resources and limiting the amount of time spent seeking out information as excessive scrolling and searching for information often fuels anxiety. Encourage them to come to you if they have questions, and if you don’t know the answer, you can research it together.
- Talk about resources available at school and otherwise.
Ultimately, when you make time and room to discuss a traumatic event, you create a safe environment for them to bring up concerns when and if they have them. If they feel safe to talk, and something comes up, they will. Teach them to speak up and speak out. Let their voices be heard. Teach them that individuals can make a difference. Let them know to talk to an adult if they are worried about one of their friends and that everyone will handle this differently. There isn’t a right or wrong way!!
For a more in-depth resource and guide age by age, check out The Child Mind Institute’s Helping Children Cope after a Traumatic Event
Resources from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP)
- Talking to Children about Violence: Tips for Families and Educators
- Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers