American Association of Christian Counselors
American Association of Christian Counselors

Helping Children Cope with Traumatic Events

Kevin Ellers, M.A.

As your children get ready to go back to school after Christmas break, Kevin Ellers shares tips for helping them continue to process the Newtown shooting and re-build a sense of safety.

While the media has focused on the families of those who have had loved ones die in Newtown, Connecticut, parents across America are struggling to help their own families cope with this event. As children prepare to go back to school, they may encounter anxiety and struggle with the images and stories they’ve seen on TV.

Remembering that children have an egocentric view of the world is important. Kids can vicariously experience emotional trauma, although they did not directly witness the scene or know any of the victims. The ripple effect of a traumatic event like this can be far-reaching, but may not be recognized by parents.

Violent or intensely disturbing images and experiences may disrupt a child’s sense of security and safety. Consequently, the child may experience a feeling of loss, resulting in fear, grief, feeling alone, anger, and/or loss of control. Talking to children about death must match their developmental level. Parents should be sensitive to kids’ capacity to understand the situation.

It is also critical to understand that children closely monitor adults’ reactions as they process a traumatic event, and for primary grade children, these reactions can play a very significant role in shaping their perceptions of the event.

 

Practical Ways Parents Can Help

  • Be present; monitor your children’s behaviors. Spend extra time with them and maintain a sense of routine.

 

  • Your kids may desire more physical contact with you for a period of time, so be available. Physical affection is very comforting to children who have experienced trauma. When possible, avoid unnecessary separations from your children immediately following a traumatic event.

 

  • Reassure them that safe and that trustworthy people are in control. Remember, they are watching you! Showing images or telling stories of how people are helping those who are hurting can help to counteract the impact of vicarious trauma.

 

  • Listen to your children; accept and don’t argue about their feelings. Welcome their questions.

 

  • “Tune in” with and validate their unique emotional reactions. Don’t assume all children understand or react to death and traumatic events in the same way.

 

  • Children often wonder, “Is that going to happen to me?” or “Is that going to happen to my mommy, daddy, or sister?” They should be reassured with information about what is being done to keep them safe. Children may also have questions about death and dying. Try to answer their questions as truthfully as possible, at a level they can understand. Remember, questions are often about the underlying fears or hurts, not just intellectual answers.

 

  • It is important to monitor the amount of exposure to news events. Continuing to expose your children to violent images may be harmful as children may believe the event is still happening.

 

  • Events like this can also provide an important learning opportunity to discuss issues of faith with your children and model ways of praying for and helping others who are hurting.

 

Adapted from content in the Grief Following Trauma curriculum (Ellers, 2006).

 

 

Kevin Ellers, M.A. is the Territorial Disaster Services Coordinator for The Salvation Army in the U.S.A. Central Territory. He is also president of the Institute for Compassionate Care which is dedicated to education, training and direct care. He is an associate chaplain with the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police, serves as faculty for the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, adjunct professor at Olivet Nazarene University, and is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors Crisis Response Training Team. He has extensive training and experience in the fields of crisis response, grief, trauma, disaster management, chaplaincy, pastoral ministries, marriage and family therapy, and social services. As an author and speaker he teaches broadly in these related topics.

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