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How to Talk to Your Kids About Traumatic Events

By Sarah Glover
|  Tuesday, Apr 16, 2013  |  Updated 3:55 PM EDT
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How to Talk to Your Kids About Traumatic Events

AP

A Boston police officer wheels in injured boy down Boylston Street as medical workers carry an injured runner following an explosion during the 2013 Boston Marathon in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013. Two explosions shattered the euphoria at the marathon's finish line on Monday, sending authorities out on the course to carry off the injured while the stragglers were rerouted away from the smoking site of the blasts. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

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Dr. Sue Cornbluth is a child psychologist, professor at Temple University and a national expert on foster care, child abuse and parenting. Cornbluth shares strategies on how to talk with your child about a tragic event, such as the Boston Marathon blasts. 

How do you talk to your kids when trauma happens? 

The first thing you want to do is become comfortable in yourself with what happened. Practice what you are going to say to your child. You want to talk to your child about it in a nonchalant way. Talk to them while they are watching television, to cause less stress. Be honest but be aware of their age.

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When do you speak to your child about a traumatic event?

As soon as it breaks so that they don’t find out from other venues.  However, there is an exception—if young children (6 years or younger) are not asking, you don’t have to volunteer the information. Wait until they ask. With older children, they will find out. Please, parents follow up and check in with your child over the next few days without pressure.

Should you find out what is being told to your children from other sources?

Please reach out to your school and community resources to find out what is being told to your children. Find out what other messages are being sent and read the paperwork coming home. It is essential during a traumatic event that we are all sending children a cohesive message of safety. Be aware of follow up questions when they do come home from school. 

How do you talk to an elementary or middle school child about unexpected tragic events?

In this case, limit graphic detail. You want to keep reassuring them that parents and teachers are doing things to keep them safe. You want to say something along the lines: “Something terrible happened today and people got hurt. But, a lot of people survived and this does not happen every day. We love and we are here if you want to talk.”

How do you talk to a teen?

You can be more graphic with teens. They understand terms like guns and bombs. You don’t have to sugarcoat it. I still would limit exposure to graphic details because with all the killings and the more kids watch, the more they could possibly become obsessed, which could lead to other mental health issues. If you see them obsessing on the act, get professional help immediately. Don’t wait.

How do you prepare your child if they are exposed to media coverage from the event?

If your child is exposed to the media and you know about it ask them what they are seeing and hearing. You have to address their questions immediately, but it is a clue you have to start monitoring what they are looking at. You should limit the amount news exposure they have. Turn on something else. Do other activities as the media coverage dies down. It’s hard because we want to know what is going on. But the concern is for your child, not you. The main concern is decreasing the child’s panic and fear. 

How can parents be a strong role model for their child during a tragedy?

The first we have to do is be honest, first. Make sure your child knows that you are there to provide unconditional love and support, and you will acknowledge their feelings. We have to put our children before ourselves, plain and simple. 

How do you prepare your children for a future traumatic event?

What you do now is open the lines of communication. Open the door now so that when this occurs again, and it will, your child knows they can come to you to talk openly. That is your first step to reducing the immediate panic. 

 


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