Talking to Children about Loss, Trauma and Traumatic Loss
Megan Bronson PMHCNS-BC
As parents we want to protect our children and we have difficulty seeing them sad or hurting. However, in order for children to heal after loss, trauma, sudden death and traumatic loss, they need to be able to express their feelings, have those feelings heard with compassion, and have their questions answered appropriately. The following are meant to be guidelines for parents and caregivers who are looking for some assistance in how to tell a child about a loss, sudden death, trauma or traumatic loss, how much to tell them and when to tell them. These guidelines need to be individualized to your child’s particular situation and also modified for their age, developmental stage, and individual capacity to hear about the details of a traumatic event and loss.
To tell or not to tell: Choosing not to tell a child about a trauma or traumatic loss risks the child hearing about the event in an unsupported or even an insensitive manner, such as from an older child, the media, or gossip. The child may also overhear adult conversation that is confusing and perhaps intensely emotional from upset adults who are also impacted by the loss or trauma. Better that you, the parents or caregivers who know the child best set the tone, choose the place, and the context for informing the child. Another risk of not telling the child is that we risk losing the child’s trust when we withhold information from them that they need to make sense of a situation and their feelings. Children often feel lied to and betrayed when they are not provided timely information.
- Who should tell: It is best for the child to hear difficult news from a trusted caregiver such as a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, older brother or sister as these will be the people who will be having ongoing supportive contact with the child and can follow up with them.
- Setting the time and place: Choose a time that you are in control enough of your own feelings so that you can focus on the needs of your child. It is fine for your child to see your tears, however, it is not beneficial for a child to have to end up comforting a parent’s overwhelming emotion. Many children protect parents from their own grief because they see that the parent is hurting and they do not want to add to that. Choose a place that provides privacy so that your child doesn’t need to feel self conscious about expressing their feelings or tears.
- When and how to tell: Because of the risk to trust and also the risk of the child hearing in an unsupported manner, it is better to inform the child as soon possible after the traumatic incident or loss in age appropriate, clear and simple language. Avoid providing too many details as this will overwhelm the child. An example of simple and clear information would be, “There was a bad accident, and Daddy was hurt so badly that they could not fix him and he died. We are all very hurt and sad and sometimes even mad and we will miss him very much.” The truth spoken simply with kindness and compassion catalyzes the emotional healing process. Older children may be able to handle more details and will ask for them when they are ready. Allow children to express their feelings and to ask questions. Avoid judging feelings or trying to fix them–just hear them and respond to them with compassion and comfort.
- Plant the seeds for future discussions: “You may not feel like talking about this right now but when you are ready to talk or have more questions we can talk about how you feel and get answers to your questions when we are able to.” Follow up with the child periodically to see if they have further questions or need to talk. Focused listening and physical comfort need not take large amounts of time but can be given even for fifteen or twenty minutes a day and have a profound impact on the child’s emotional healing.
- How many details should children hear? This depends on the age of the child, their individual and developmental readiness to process upsetting and particularly horrifying details. Ask yourself if the child really needs to know the details at this time or if this can wait until they are older and more able to process and integrate the details. Sometimes these details may not be appropriate to share until the child is in their late teens or young adulthood.
- Ways to help your child:
- Avoid exposing children to television coverage of the traumatic event that effected your family or coverage of any traumatic event
- Avoid having adult conversations about the traumatic event within earshot of the child
- Find a support group for grieving children and families, such as Gilda’s Club, Hospice, Church, Community, or Hospital based Bereavement groups. You may also choose to seek support from specialty groups such as cancer support groups, burn survivor support groups, survivors of suicide or homicide, a group for bereaved parents, (such as Compassionate Friends), etc. Contact the community mental health agency in your area for available support groups.
- Seek individual counseling as needed
- Be aware of trauma symptoms in yourself and your child and seek professional help if these persist
- Talk to the child’s teacher and school counselor and let them know what your child is going through
- Provide your child with paper, crayons, markers and other creative materials such as play dough, fingerpaints and other expressive materials as these are natural and effective ways for children to express their feelings
- Provide the child with outlets for their anger and frustration such as age appropriate physical activities
- Take care of yourself–you deserve this and your child needs you
Excellent grief and trauma resources for Adults and Children:
www.dougy.org The Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children and Families
www.childtrauma.org Child Trauma Academy Bruce Perry MD, PhD
www.trauma-pages.org David Baldwin PhD.Trauma Information