Updated October 2023

“This is life. You don’t get a vote about what you have to deal with. You do get a vote on whether you deal with it or not.” 

– Barbara Fairfield, LMFT

Often, parents are afraid to bring up anything traumatic because they fear they’ll traumatize their children. This is a natural concern and this approach is not useful now. Our children are going to hear about current events and they need to be able to process it. All of us are affected by what we’ve been hearing. We can’t avoid the issues. They need to be dealt with. Avoiding it is not dealing with it. We all would prefer to not have to deal with any hard things. And that isn’t a choice. 

It is so important  for parents to be processing current events with our children. Just leaving them to figure it out or to process with their friends is not going to get them very far. Parents are the frontline people for their children. It’s not the counselors or the therapists. Every child has a parent or a caregiver of some kind. It is these parents and caregivers who need to help children process.

Integrating the trauma is going to help prevent the serious effects – things like flashbacks, nightmares, depression, things that can linger for years and might not appear right away. These are things that can prevent us from going forward in a healthy way.

Last year, Marjie and her daughter Louisa sat down with Barbara Fairfield to talk about the steps to dealing with trauma with our children and creating a family and community where we can handle hard things together. At the time, their conversation centered around talking to kids about gun violence – but the conversation applies to any hard or scary event we need to help our children process.

Below is a summary of that conversation. The full interview can be viewed here.


How to bring up tough news with younger children

Younger children are completely dependent on the parents bringing it up. A lot of times parents are afraid of bringing up anything about trauma because they don’t want to traumatize their children. This is a natural concern and this approach is not reasonable in today’s time. All of our children are going to find out the things happening in their world. They are either going to find out from their friends, by overhearing their parents, by hearing the TV, from their own phones or their parent’s phones. They are going to get this information, if they didn’t hear it last week, they will hear it eventually. 

Questions Parents Might Ask

We want to find out and help them describe what they know.

  1. What have you heard that was very bad that happened last week?
  2. You can then ask very specific questions: “When did you hear it?”  The timeline is important.
  3. “Where were you when you heard it?” This is important processing. These simple questions are essential to enable a child to begin to process difficult information.
  4. “What did you feel in your body when you heard that?”
    “Did you have any strange feelings in your body when you heard that?”
  5. “What was your first thought when you heard that information?”
    “What else were you thinking?”
  6. “How did you feel?” When they give you their feelings or thoughts, it is important for the parent to validate that. It can be very simple. “I can really understand how you could have felt that, or thought that.” Or “I thought that, too.” Or, “I could have felt that, too.” “I know you aren’t the only one who felt that.”
    Validate their feelings and help them to experience it as something that is supposed to happen when you hear bad news.

Two common responses:

  1. They might cry.

    If they start crying, that is not a bad thing. They are just feeling the feelings. There is nothing wrong with that. It is OK. This is part of the processing. They need to be able to see how to handle this emotionally. Be OK with that.
  1. Avoidance.

    If they say, “I don’t want to talk about this.” We don’t need to make them talk about it. You may say, “Alright, we don’t need to talk about it right now, but I’d like to check in with you later.” Put them on notice that you’re not going to disappear and forget this. You are going to keep giving them opportunities. You might say something like, “I know you don’t want to talk about it now, and you may think that it isn’t a good thing to talk about it. But I know that it is going to be helpful to you to talk about it. So we will get back to it. I’ll honor that right now you want to have a break.”

Stay with the child at their pace and their level, and being respectful of that, and at the same time don’t avoid it. You’re giving the child the message that difficult, bad things do happen, and we’re going to deal with them.

By talking about this you are giving your child the message that “In this family we help each other deal with bad things.” The overall goal here is to give the child the firm understanding that they are cared about and loved in this family. Part of being cared for is caring about what they have taken in, what happened. We’re not going to pretend like nothing happened. We’re going to take care of what we need to take care of. “We are here to take care of you.”

Many children will welcome the chance to talk about it. It is the parents who usually don’t want to talk about it! The child often does want to talk about it and is glad to have somebody saying it is alright to do that. 

Other Questions You Might Ask The Child

  • “What do you think your friends were feeling?” 
  • What do you think your friends were experiencing?”

It is often easier for children to talk about someone else than it is to talk about themselves. 

  • Do you think your friends know this happened?
  • Do you think your friends are having conversations about this with their parents?
  • Would you want your friend to be able to talk with their parent about this, like you’re talking to me?
  • What questions do you have?
  • Any other questions? 

How to Answer Their Questions

You might say: “I will try my best to answer. I may  not know the answers to your questions. Together we will try to find out the answers.”

Depending on their age and sophistication, they may pose tough questions. You might say: “I don’t know how to answer that question yet. Would you mind if I thought about it a little while and got back to you?” Don’t feel like you have to answer every question they might have. They are going to ask questions you don’t know how to answer. It is alright to take time for that.

We have to learn how to listen and validate. The first step is to repeat what they said. If the child says: “I was scared.” You might respond: “You were scared when you heard this. When you were scared, where did you feel it in your body? What did it feel like in your body?”

Sometimes, they aren’t able to answer how it felt. It can be nice to hear you share from your experience. You might say: “I know when I get scared, it feels like I have a ball in my stomach that’s really hard.” Or “I have  pain in my neck.” Give them a clue on how to check in with their body. They might not know.

You do not have any answers for them, really. It is about seeing what they are dealing with, repeat back what you heard and ask more questions of them. The important thing is to get them to process this. They don’t process when you are telling them what you think. 

Listen Listen Listen

That is one of the main things about it. By listening, you are helping them process.

Draw Your Experience

With small children, it can help to ask them to draw their experience. “Here is a piece of paper and some markers. Draw what you think when you think about this awful thing that happened.” You will have something to look at together. It also gets it out of the right brain (SAM, referenced below) and into the left brain where it can be processed and reflected on. The right brain does the drawing, the left brain (logical, verbal part of brain) processes the drawing then it can be integrated, dealt with.

Being a Force For Good

Any person who does  awful damage to other people has undealt with trauma. If we process trauma with our children, we can help them to have healthy ways to process.

The message you are giving the child is: “This family doesn’t just hear bad things, we try to help people when we hear bad things. Is there something you think we should be doing to help the people affected by what happened? Should we draw a picture for affected families, send a card, have a lemonade stand and make some money to send to families in need ?” Think together about how to support others.

“Are there children in your school  you think we should reach out to? Do you think there is somebody in your class who might be having a hard time with this?” 

“Is there something you can do to help them feel better?” 

Children Will Say “We Need To Do SOMETHING!”

As children get older, they will ask, “Shouldn’t we….?” You might ask them: “What do you think we should do?”  Teens are going to feel that they have a stake in this for their future and will want to make change. Harness the idea “We can make a difference.”

Rather than reassuring them, “Oh, this isn’t going to happen to you, you’ll be OK.” What gives us a sense of safety is knowing that we have support for change. That is ultimately what helps us feel better. Helping them harness the energy. That is what gives them hope and agency.. That is part of how we also can deal with it – showing that things can get better.

Your Family Culture

This is a way to let our children feel something special about being part of our family.

  • In this family, we talk about hard things.
  • In this family, we make room for strong emotions.
  • In this family, we make room for other people when they’ve been hurt.

There is a sense of purpose, support, courage that comes from being together in this family. We are being constructive, in a positive way. It is not just papering it over. It is getting real. We can only do so much, but we can do something.

Help small children know that they can do something. Remember, trauma like this makes you feel hopeless, helpless, powerless. So if you can empower the child in the face of something big like this, you’ve given them something for the future.

The family who does best is the one that realizes that they can take something that is really tough and use it to get to a better place. Bad things happen, the important thing is to not let it bring you down but to harness the resilience, the camaraderie, the connection and the compassion for others.

Compassion

Particularly heinous acts of violence or traumatic events bring a lot of opportunities for compassion. We can help children understand that some people are hurting so badly that they end up hurting others. That is a hard thing to understand. I think children can understand this at a level of compassion. We don’t always understand why people do what they do, but we can be sure that they were suffering before they did it.

An On-Going Conversation

This isn’t a one-time conversation. This is an ongoing process. Let your child know that we’re going to continue to talk about this. We’re going to continue to have feelings and thoughts about it and I urge you to come back and let us grownups know that you’re thinking about these things so we can talk about it as a family and decide, ourselves, what we’re going to do about it. This is not a one-time talk.

You can harness some of the better parts of your nature to deal with the bad things: including compassion, cooperation, self-comfort, as well as comfort of others. These are good things to have in your repertoire of mental health.

It is alright to limit your exposure to the news. If you say, I’m not watching the news ever again that is your trauma voice talking. It is OK to put some guardrails up and set limits. You might decide as a family to not have the news on every day.

When and Where to Hold This Hard Conversation

After you have this talk with your child the first time, be sure you’ve planned it in such a way so that afterwards you do something completely different. You need to have something that takes you into a different mind. You don’t want to do this right before bedtime. Please don’t!  It would be better if you did it on a Saturday morning so you had time afterwards for a special outing. Do something out in nature, be together, have fun. Kick a ball, take a walk, be together.

The space is important too. Are we on the couch where we can touch each other? We need to have contact, we need to be able to look each other in the eye. We need to be able to hug our children when they start to feel bad. 

Hugs heal the brain. Be sure you do lots of hugs before, during and after you have this talk. Hugs themselves heal the brain. If your child starts to feel emotional, put your arms around them and say, “Just breathe into my hugs for a minute.” You can teach them how to calm and regulate their own mind. This is a tremendous opportunity to help our children be less likely to be traumatized in the future. Use the trauma that is happening right now so that they learn how to deal with their emotions. They are going to be hit with stuff. They aren’t always going to have you. If you do your work well, they will have the process. They will know what to do with it.

On Reassuring Children

What we can’t do is reassure our children that nothing bad will ever happen again. We have to reassure them, instead, that we are doing everything we can to keep them and our world as safe as possible. Adults are working on this, thinking about this, trying to find a better way to prevent this kind of tragedy in the future. We can reassure them that we are determined to do our part in keeping them safe and helping to keep other children safe as well. If we can broaden it to all children, that will help them to feel that the adults are on it. Parents want to say, “You’re safe in your world.” We can’t always say that for sure. 

Summary

Listen, be there with hugs, validate, ask more questions. That’s what we can do as parents. That’s not nothing. That is a lot to do. Our children need that. You cannot make it go away, this is the world that your children have been born into. You can help them to be able to handle it and they’ll help the next generation.

Watch your children over time. If you see a child who is not sleeping well, having nightmares, getting easily irritated in a way they weren’t before, if they begin to do things out of the ordinary you need to consider professional help.

Being a community of parents who help each other is vital. We all need to be processing this in a healthy way.

Two Memory Systems: What we know about the effect of trauma on the brain

Trauma is experienced by two different memory systems:

1.  The situational accessible memory (SAM). This is the unconsciously processed information, out of your awareness. It includes feelings, reactions, physical feelings that are unconscious and not remembered. (Often referred to as the “Right brain”) Flashbacks come from this undealt-with SAM material.

2. Verbal Accessible Memory (VAM). This is what is remembered and processed. It is integrated.  (Left brain.)

What we know about PTSD is that the SAM memory has to be processed in order to avoid flashbacks, effects of trauma, or severe depression. Being able to move things from the SAM to the VAM is the way to prevent the worst effects of trauma. This is what we need to do for our children. We need to move the SAM memory over to the left brain accessible memory (VAM).  When children heard about scary news, they have thoughts that they don’t have access to.  They need to be able to process these. 

Parents are the frontline people for their children.

On Integration

Processing what is in the situational part of the brain and bringing it into the verbal part of the brain is integration. You’re bringing it into a place where it can be discussed, talked about, a story can be told. It can be narrated to somebody else. All of that is the integration.

Doing physical positive things in the midst of it helps to integrate, doing things that are constructive. This is all experiential. The question is do you process the experience or does it just sit there? Integration is the processing of the experience.

We can use what we know and take it forward.


About Barbara Fairfield, LMFT

Barbara received her master’s degree in counseling from Bowie State University in 1977 and has been a practicing marriage and family therapist ever since. She cares deeply about families and has worked with parents and caregivers in a variety of ways throughout her career. In addition to her private practice where she sees couples and conducts three therapy groups, Barbara runs a consultant group for genetic counselors at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. She has deep experience working with families and helping them to face challenges. She has also led programs and supported families in multiple ways at the local family education center, Parent Encouragement Program, in Kensington, Maryland.