Talking with Children about Traumatic Events

Building Healthy Communities -Talking with Children about Traumatic Events

I am caring for my 4 and 7-year-old grandsons this weekend, here in Emerald Beach, so I opened the conversation with my daughter about taking the children to the water blessing/paddle out tomorrow that will be held at Shelley’s Beach in honour of the death of the young man after a shark attack. The depth of trauma in our small community and surrounding areas has been palpable.

We talked about the focus being on connecting with all the things we love about the ocean and fostering a respect for the many aspects of this wilderness, also honouring Tim, who loved the ocean passionately and yet, not mentioning the shocking details of his death. My daughter felt comfortable about this and, as the children are just learning to surf and forming a relationship with the ocean was also concerned about what the children might overhear or feel from other people also gathered on the headland.

So, I sourced further information about talking with children about traumatic events and one article, in particular, I felt to share as I am sure many parents, grandparents, carers, family and friends may have questions or concerns about this.

I acknowledge that each family will make their call as to what and how much to share with their children taking account of their own personal losses, trauma, beliefs and vulnerabilities. Some parents and carers have no choice but to talk about it with their family as their children/young adults were in the water, on the beach, heard it on the news or maybe overheard others talking about what happened or their friends may have told stories in the playground. You only have to speak with a kindergarten teacher to know that kids pick up more than we can imagine.

I spoke with my friend, clinical psychologist, Lisa Brown, who said, “For children anxiety about sharks and the ocean can trigger fear that may generalise out to other areas of life, like a ripple effect. This is an opportunity to educate our children and ourselves about the ocean to understand sharks and humans are a part of that larger complex system involving ocean, sky and land. If we can help our kids develop skills and tools to manage difficult emotions like fear, we can be more open to understanding our world, preventing anxiety escalating and deeply recognising that the rhythm of life involves death”

I searched for supportive and informative articles about recognising stress and trauma or how to have conversations with your children and this one by The Centre for Parenting Education had some great practical and caring advice. It includes, ‘When Disaster Strikes, Talking to Children about Traumatic Events – 7 Ways Parents can Help – Understand Children’s Reaction to Trauma – How Children Show Anxiety – Children’s Unique Reactions Through the Ages.’

“Traumatic events can have profound effects not only on those who have been directly involved and influenced, but also on people close to those people and to witnesses.”

The article offers invaluable tips, such as these open-ended questions, if you are not sure how much your child/ren know.

“Tell me more about that.”
“Are there other things that are bothering you right now?”
“What have you heard about . . . .?”
“What do you think happened?”

Also, here is a one minute video on ‘What to focus on to provide hope’ Fred Rogers, acclaimed for his caring, informative children’s shows (Mister Rogers) that addressed real life issues. He encourages listening mindfully to children and, in this talk, shares what to focus on in a tragedy to provide hope for children.

Here are some other links you may find useful when talking with kids about trauma

Trauma and Children – Tips for Parents

Trauma and Children 2-5 years old

Helping Children Cope with Traumatic Events

While I have not read The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Steps to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., it come highly recommend by a parent. There is a chapter about how to support children to make sense of information or an event including telling stories to calm big emotions.

How we respond as parents, grandparents or carers is an essential support to children. You may wish to join me for a regular online mindfulness practice or engage in Celebrating This Precious Life, Honest Conversations about Life and Death.

I hope you find this post helpful and supportive. What resources can you recommend? Please post them in the comments below.

As a funeral celebrant, I work with families and communities, face to face and online, around having honest conversations about death and dying. If you are interested in joining me in an online gathering about having difficult conversations with children please email me

Talking with Children about Traumatic Events