As the past two weeks have unfolded our country has endured two mass shootings. In the latest shooting in Boulder, Colorado, there were children and parents simply grocery shopping in the middle of the day. Just doing what we all do on a weekly basis. Doing the one thing we can still do while in the middle of a global pandemic. The sense of safety that has been shaken in children going about their daily lives is something that needs to be discussed. From going to school, or to a movie theatre and now going grocery shopping, traumatic memories or fear is a more collective experience than ever.

How Do Children Process Trauma?

Trauma often triggers physical, emotional and mental reactions in our bodies that can last long after the event is through. Whether a child was directly involved or has been hearing the stories of a new traumatic event, when trauma is stored in the body children are often vulnerable to long term negative impacts.

Emotionally kids may feel terror, anxiety, a loss of safety and constant worry. Physically children may experience their heart pounding, have upset stomach, have headaches, excessive sweating, restlessness, not sleep well and lose their appetite. Mentally it can be difficult to focus, concentrate and sustain attention when you have just been through a traumatic experience or have been triggered.

When younger children, such as infant and toddlers experience a traumatic event they may not have the verbal skills to process it so they tend to have sensory memory. This means that they may be jumpier and have a more difficult time regulating their behaviors and feelings. On their own, they cannot help this very much, they need the love, comfort and support of a trusted adult to regain a sense of safety.

How a child responds to a traumatic event depends on several key factors including: previous trauma history, the pre-existing security that had in their relationships, and how their support system supports them in the days, weeks and months following an event or trigger.

This past week I was asked a lot of questions from parents and in the media about how to talk to kids about traumatic events. 

First, know that love and safety is what they need right now. So, go into your conversations with that as your guide, even when you think you won't know what to say.
Next, start by asking them what they have heard, what they know and what they want to hear more of. This is your opportunity to listen and not to overshare. People tend to overshare when they are nervous, so take a deep breath and just respond to their actual questions and address anything that may be not be true in what they have been hearing.

Watch your child's body language and nonverbal communication signals. Their tone, eye contact, gestures and posture can tell you more about what they are feeling than their words do.

Infant and toddlers who are up to age 5 would benefit from additional touch, increased time together creating a greater sense of safety. They will also benefit from their usual routine which naturally creates safety from predictability.

School age children, about ages 6-12, may need you to check in on them more frequently. Ask them what they are thinking and feeling and encourage them to draw, write or express themselves in other creative ways.

Teenagers may benefit from limited social media and screen time following a traumatic event. Since social media is where they tend to get the majority of their information, you may want to see what they are reading and even watch some of it with them to get a sense of what they are being exposed to and try to manage the flood of information as best you can.

1:5 children will be diagnosed some sort sort of mental health issue in their lifetime. Utilizing some of these tips, getting professional support when needed and being present with your child can make a significant difference.

About the author

Sheryl Gonzalez Ziegler, Psy.D. holds a Doctorate of Psychology, is an Author, Speaker, National Media Contributor, Non-Profit Board Member, Girl Scouts Leader, Girls on the Run Coach and Advocate for children. She has been treating children and families for over twenty years with areas of expertise in anxiety, trauma, divorce, stress management and depression. Dr. Ziegler is the author of the best selling book, Mommy Burnout: how to reclaim your life and raise healthier children in the process, the winner of Best Parenting Book of 2018 as awarded by International Latino Book Awards.

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