Too often our world is shaken by traumatic events such as natural disasters (e.g., tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods), war, school and community violence, acts of terrorism, accidents, housefires/wildfires, life-threatening illness (and pandemics), separations, loss of a family member or pet, kidnappings, and so on. Such events can leave all of us feeling helpless, and children may be particularly sensitive to events that make them feel unsafe. This article discusses ways that parents can help their children through traumatic events and help them feel safe in the face of frightening or anxiety-provoking circumstances.
I first wrote the following article back in 2001 after the events of September 11. Many parents have told me that it has been helpful to them when facing a variety of very challenging situations. I shared it here in the form of a blogpost, with some minor additions, as families faced the rapid and disconcerting life changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. There has been much about the school closings and social distancing protocols that have had the same impact as other events we more typically think of as traumas. The article is about many different types of traumatic situations however, so I added coronavirus thoughts at the end. Furthermore, as the pandemic has gradually shifted toward a more manageable endemic, the invasion and war in Ukraine has horrified the world with its impact on children and families. I have now added another section near the end specifically about that situation.
Children who are directly exposed to traumatic situations or events can become traumatized, and the emotional impact of trauma can last a very long time if it goes unnoticed. Some children are exposed to trauma indirectly through sensationalized or repetitive newscasts or by hearing and seeing others‘ emotional reactions, and there’s evidence that children can be traumatized by this indirect contact with trauma as well. It’s important that parents have information about trauma, its impact on children, and how to help their children understand and cope with these events. This can be challenging because parents might feel the impact of trauma and have their own emotional reactions to it as well.
When something traumatic occurs, it’s important to give children an honest but simple explanation of what happened. They are bound to hear about it through television, schoolmates, or overheard adult conversations, so it’s best if their parents or primary caregivers play an active role in helping them understand the event. It’s also important to reassure children that you, their parents, will do everything you can to keep them safe. Some children blame themselves when bad things happen, so parents need to tell them firmly that it’s not their fault.
Caregivers should limit children’s exposure to newscasts about traumatic events. Broadcasts are geared toward adults, and children may not have the reasoning abilities or coping mechanisms to deal with repeated views of people crying, buildings on fire, first responders or medical personnel in hazmat suits, and so on. Although children’s programs often portray violence, the emotional tone of the news conveys its “reality” and children and adolescents can become extremely frightened, whether or not they show it. You need not restrict their exposure entirely, but screen carefully what they do see!
Children who are roughly 3 to 12 years of age, given the opportunity, will often play out scenes from a traumatic or scary event. Sometimes older children will, too. For example, following a car accident, parents might see their children playing out car crashes and rescues with their toys. When parents see this, they might worry that it’s damaging somehow for the child to play out the traumatic situation. Actually, it’s often just the opposite: it can help the child cope better. Just as we adults need to talk with others after experiencing something frightening, sad, or devastating, children need to play through their feelings and reactions to the trauma. It can be very beneficial if parents allow their children to play this way while showing acceptance of the child’s feelings. To stop such play too quickly can cut off the child’s primary means of coping. Of course, children should be distracted to some other activity if they are playing in ways that are actually dangerous to themselves or others, or if the child is becoming obviously upset by the play. If a child constantly plays out the traumatic event and seems unable to think about anything else, then limits should be set on the amount of time spent playing out the traumatic events. (If children’s play appears to be upsetting the child further or if they seem “obsessed” with their trauma play, parents should consider a consult with a mental health professional, as these behaviors might signal that the child is already traumatized. If children’s play appears robotic and the child seems “not there” while playing, a consult is warranted as well.)
It’s important to permit children to talk about their reactions to a traumatic event when they want to. Although such conversations can be difficult, especially if we’re experiencing our own reactions to the trauma, they do help all of us in the long run. One of the worst things we can do is say to our children, “Don’t play that way.” or “Don’t talk about it–it’s over–let’s get on with things.” Denial of the child’s reactions can lead to larger problems later. While it’s important to let children express themselves, including their feelings of anger, sadness, or helplessness, it’s also important to help them focus on the positive aspects of trauma situations. In the wake of many disasters, there are many amazing, touching stories of selfless acts, heroic deeds, and the very best of human caring coming from the most horrible of conditions. Although we see some of the worst of humanity during or after traumatic events, we also see vastly more of the very best. It’s important for our children to hear about them because it adds to children‘s sense of security, connections to other people, and hope for the future.
The natural tendency of children to play out the things that are happening around them is their way of trying to understand. Because they are PLAYING, it feels safer to them, and this is very important. Too much TALKING about scary events can actually scare children more. Some talking is important to give children some basic information and to answer their questions, but it is through their play that children, especially those under 12, have a real opportunity to understand what is going on. Throughout the world, children in war zones are seen “playing war.” Children play doctor or medical scenes when they or someone in their family has been ill or hospitalized. Aid workers noticed that children directly affected by the Oklahoma City Bombing were playing with small plastic dogs sniffing around in piles of blocks, much as real dogs were used to find survivors in the actual rubble. After September 11, children throughout the world were reported to be playing scenes of planes hitting buildings, firefighters and rescue, buildings crashing down, and even funeral themes. A boy in the U.K. played scenes of police officers arresting “bad guys” after the terrorist bombing of the London Underground. A girl from New Orleans who had been moved to a shelter after Hurricane Katrina involved several other children in play where she was the “Mama Alligator” who was trying to save her babies (the other children) from the “Cane” (hurricane). As we faced the pandemic COVID-19 virus, reports came in from several countries of children drawing pictures of the virus, doctors in strange suits, people lying in beds, as well as playing and pretending that their dolls or puppets were very sick, and that superheroes were battling some representation of the virus.
Long after a traumatic event has occurred, parents should remain alert to any signs of trauma in their children. When children are traumatized, the effects may occur much later than expected. Sometimes traumatized children look quite “normal” on the surface after the event, and then experience post-traumatic symptoms weeks, months, or even years later. It’s fine for parents to ask their children what they’re thinking and feeling about the event from time to time, and then really listen to what they say. On the other hand, it’s best not to “bombard” children with questions about how they’re feeling or to hold lengthy discussions with them, as this might actually raise the children’s anxiety levels. It’s good for parents to share their own feelings of fear, sadness, anger about an event because it helps children see that these reactions are normal and can provide good coping models. (A caution, though: be sure that you share your feelings simply and don’t elaborate to a point that could frighten the child further. Always reassure them that you’ll keep them safe.)
One of the most beneficial things for children after a traumatic event is for their day-to-day environment to return to “normal” as quickly as possible. Getting back to some sort of daily “routine” can help kids feel safer and keep the traumatic event from becoming the only focus of their lives. This can be challenging following some disasters such as floods, fires, earthquakes and war, but working toward as normal an environment as possible under the circumstances can help. Parents can help children find a balance between playing/talking about the event and doing daily tasks and other types of activities.
When trauma has been caused by humans, as in terrorism or war, it is important for children and adults alike to remember that we gain strength from our human connections and that most people are good. Broad, angry statements about other ethnic groups can add to children’s sense of insecurity and promote prejudice and uninformed backlash effects. People throughout the world have struggled for a long time with our “differences,” and that struggle continues. Acts of terror are intended to divide us, and we can resist this and help our children feel much safer by teaching them that these bad deeds are the work of individuals (or small groups of individuals or a specific government in the case of wars) and not of any broad ethnic, racial, religious, or other group.
Many children are quite resilient when dealing with traumatic events, but it’s good for parents to know what to look for when their child might be struggling. Here are some signs that your child might be experiencing post-traumatic problems:
- anxious, “edgy”, nervous, agitated
- difficulty concentrating
- refuses to go to school; difficulty with schoolwork
- becomes angry quickly
- aggressive, either verbally or physically
- nightmares, or repetitive nightmares
- won’t sleep in his/her own bed; sleeps on floor or wants to sleep with parents
- easily startled by noises or situations similar to the traumatic event
- reverts to “younger-age” behaviors like bedwetting, nail biting, thumbsucking
- won’t talk about what happened
- talks excessively about what happened
- becomes very dependent–clings to parents or other caretakers; fears separations
- problems with friendships and siblings–seems aloof or argues
- seems “different” than he/she did before; personality seems a bit different
Although these signs might be related to other things, if the signs persist, are intense, are different following the trauma, or if several occur for your child, it could be a sign of a traumatic reaction. If you or your children experience continuing distress that interferes with your day-to-day work, school, and family life, you might consider consulting with a therapist. The sooner a post-traumatic reaction is determined and treated, the better the outcome is likely to be for the child (or adults, too). A qualified mental health professional can help the child and the parents.
Play therapy can be very effective with traumatized children. The play gives them some “distance” from which to explore and deal with their feelings. Even teens and adults can benefit from treatments which involve play and art or other expressive interventions. Words can fail us when we experience intensely frightening events, and other means of expressing ourselves become necessary. Sometimes family play interventions can be very helpful. If you have questions or concerns about your child, contact a local mental health professional. Make sure that he or she has experience with trauma, and having a background in play therapy can be a big plus.
COVID-19 (written during the earlier parts of the pandemic)
It has struck me that with the threat, uncertainties, and risks of this virus, many of our own, not to mention our children’s, anxieties have been aroused. While the shut-downs and bans of group activities, sporting events, and now shops and sit-down restaurants are necessary, they represent very sudden changes to our lifestyles. This also has financial implications for many, and that, too, presents further survival uncertainties. Our lives have changed and it might feel as though we could do nothing but adapt to it. That’s basically true. Even the brilliant infectious disease and pandemic experts among us, as well as the medical professionals in every country trying valiantly to save patients, or even find beds for them, are adapting and doing the best they can.
For the very reason that this pandemic is causing us to feel out of control, helpless, and maybe even hopeless, it can certainly be classified as a traumatic event. Not everyone will experience it that way, but many will. As humans, we like to feel in control of our worlds, and if we can’t feel in control, we like things to be predictable. Right now, we don’t have either. It’s rough, and it’s likely to get rougher, but we will get through it.
Now think about how your children might be experiencing it. Constant news broadcasts with adults being very serious, school ended abruptly without time to say goodbye to their friends and no way to know when they will see them again. Their parents seem worried and perhaps more abrupt than usual. They are told to wash their hands over and over, and they have to learn to avoid touching their faces, which is something very automatic for humans to do, including children. Perhaps their favorite activities had to stop abruptly, too. It’s a major change for them as well, and they don’t have a full understanding of the seriousness of it all. We don’t want to scare them, but they need some information and reassurance, in much the same way as noted in the rest of this blog.
What you tell your children about this varies depending on their ages. The key is for you to bring up the topic, to keep a neutral or even light tone of voice, and invite them to share what they have questions about. Listen carefully, and only after they have shared all their reactions and thoughts, give them some information and reassure them that you will keep them safe and that life will eventually return to normal. You can share ideas of what you can do together as a family to have some fun and make the time together a bit of an in-the-house or out-in-nature adventure. For example, with a middle-school-aged child, keeping a somewhat lighter tone of voice say, “Man! I keep hearing a lot of talk about this virus thing that they closed school for. Have you heard much about it? Tell me what you’ve heard so far!” Then listen carefully, maybe even saying in your own words what your child has expressed, especially the feelings. For example, “Sounds like everyone in your class was really scared, even the teacher! And it sucks that you can’t see your friends.” After that, ask the child what questions they have, or what worries. Sometimes they’ll share them; sometimes they don’t quite know what to ask. At this point, you can give them some simple information: “There’s a contagious disease going around, and so everyone, all over the world – can you believe it!? – is trying to stay at home so they don’t catch it and it’ll go away. There are experts all over the world, also, who are working very hard to make it go away, too.” Then you might switch to something else lighthearted, “What do you suppose kids in other countries do when they are out of school? …What would be some good ways for us to have some fun? …Let’s make a list of some ideas and every day after we finish up our chores, we’ll have a little adventure.” The items in quotes here are simply for example. What you actually say might be quite different. The tone is what is important – keeping it light while inviting them to share what they know and are concerned about, some basic explanation of what is happening, and that life will be different but it’ll go on and you’ll keep them safe. If you do watch any of the news, point out the people working hard to help other people. Right now, there are some videos of people in Europe coming out on their balconies and clapping for the medical professionals. There are also videos of people in Italy singing from their apartments as a wonderful example of how people come together during tough times and can still have some fun together–just as your family can do! These might be good videos to screen and then show your children. I should note this is not a one-time conversation. You might need to have it on different occasions, depending on what is happening and how your child is reacting. Finally about Covid-19, some of my colleagues and I developed a fun little project called Animals Speak! that provided families with some messages from animals to help explain some things about the pandemic and to help children cope.
Invasion and War in Ukraine
I am adding just a little bit more to this message to parents and therapists as the war rages in Ukraine, the ancestral homeland of my in-laws. As I add this section in March 2022, the war still rages with much uncertainty for the children and families whose lives have been disrupted by the fear, bombings, fighting, and flight to refugee locations within and outside the country.
There is a difference in what we do to help children when the traumatic situation has not yet ended. The issues are somewhat different and we cannot conduct therapy as we normally would because safety and survival needs are not fully met. In situations like this, much of what is written here still applies. We want to be honest with children, but in reassuring ways. When a child asks, “Will we see Papa again?” it can be heartwrenching for the other parent who has fled the fighting with the children. Of course, we cannot know the answer to this question, but parents can still reassure children by pointing out that Papa is very smart and strong, and that he is with other soldiers who are all working together to keep everyone safe. In the long run, we do what we can to answer with hope, honesty, and in developmentally appropriate ways. And we can share and rely on our human community that surrounds us. When we hurt, we need others we can trust, even if they are hurting, too. It can be a valuable lesson for children to see how their parents cope with such terrible situations, and parents need support from others as they go through this.
We can only hope that peace is near, and when that finally comes, there will be many needs of children and families and the therapeutic interventions for traumatic events can be applied. Humans can be remarkably resilient, especially when we pull together.
Risë VanFleet, PhD, RPT-S, CDBC, CAEBI is a child and family psychologist and play therapist with over 45 years of experience who heads the Family Enhancement & Play Therapy Center, Inc., in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, USA. Among other topics, she has specialized in disaster mental health and traumatic events (and other forms of trauma) for several decades. She has trained mental health professionals throughout the world in play therapy, Filial Therapy, Animal Assisted Play Therapy®, and more. www.risevanfleet.com
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