Discussing tragic current events with young people can be a challenging and emotionally charged experience. As parents, we are grieving and experiencing our own emotions while trying to protect ourselves and our children from unnecessary secondary trauma. Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional distress that arises when an individual is exposed to the firsthand trauma experiences of others. Its symptoms can closely resemble those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People affected by secondary stress may undergo a range of responses, such as re-experiencing their personal trauma or noticing an increase in hypervigilance and avoidance reactions stemming from their indirect exposure to trauma.
Many parents and caregivers look for ways to start conversations with their children to help mitigate and cope with the secondhand trauma they are witnessing on television, social media, and other external influences. Adults may now find themselves experiencing symptoms of secondary trauma, with the tragedies from the news broadcasted all over social media news feeds, not only from media sources, but from friends and family as well. Children might be asking questions, and as parents or trusted caregivers, we want to be honest in an age-appropriate way, while also protecting our own mental health and well-being.
As clinicians at Compass Health Center, we understand the importance of providing support and age-appropriate guidance during important conversations. Below, we offer ways to prepare, guidelines for having a difficult conversation with your child, and nine tips for helping parents and trusted adults navigate these discussions with youth.
Preparing for a Difficult Conversation with a Child
Before embarking on any meaningful conversation with a child, it's vital to consider several key questions. First and foremost, think about what the child already knows. Understanding their current knowledge on the topic can help you tailor the conversation to their level of understanding and prevent any potential confusion or anxiety.
Additionally, it's crucial to pay attention to how the child expresses their emotions. Every child is unique, and some may be more vocal about their feelings while others might be more reserved. Recognizing their emotional cues can guide the conversation to be more effective. It is important to remember that just because a child isn’t raising the questions directly does not mean they aren’t thinking about them and experiencing difficult emotions. The adult may need to be the one to raise the topic depending upon their role or relationship with the child, the child’s developmental age, the context, and other unique considerations related to the individual child themselves.
Another essential aspect to ponder is how much information the child wants and needs. Not every child will have the same appetite for details, and respecting their preferences is essential for a successful discussion. Some children may desire more information, while others may prefer a more simplified explanation. Likewise, some children may desire more detailed information than they can developmentally make sense of, and the adult should err on the side of caution. It can be tempting to provide false reassurances or to shut down difficult conversations in an effort to protect children or ourselves. However, children can pick up on the stress and situations of those around them and pretending as though there is nothing of concern going on can lead children to fill in the blanks (incorrectly) themselves and can increase stress and fear. Providing a developmentally appropriate amount of information can be helpful in avoiding this scenario. Again, this will vary from child to child; context to context.
Lastly, reflect on your own comfort level in facilitating the conversation. It's okay to acknowledge if you need support, whether from a co-parent, guardian, or even a professional. The goal is to create a safe and nurturing environment for the child to express themselves.
Essential Guidelines for Discussing Difficult Topics with Children
When discussing a challenging topic with a child, there are key points to keep in mind. Begin by alerting the child that you are going to talk about a hard topic. This prepares them mentally and emotionally for the conversation ahead, reducing the chance of catching them off guard.
Always use concrete language. Children benefit from clear and straightforward communication. Avoid jargon, euphemisms, or vague terminology. Be direct and concise in your explanations to ensure they understand the information being conveyed.
Remember that children can handle truth if it's provided in a developmentally appropriate manner. Tailor your conversation to their age, maturity, and previous knowledge. This ensures that the information is accessible and comprehensible.
When the child is willing and able, let the child lead the conversation. Encourage them to ask questions or express their thoughts and feelings. This empowers them and makes the conversation more of a dialogue, allowing you to address their concerns more effectively.
Reassure the child that it is okay to ask questions. Make it clear that there are no silly or wrong questions, and that their curiosity is valued. This will help build trust and create an open and supportive environment for discussing difficult topics with children.
9 Tips for Helping Parents and Trusted Adults Navigate Difficult Discussions with Children and Teens
1. Allow Yourself to Feel
Before talking to your child about a tragedy, it's crucial to acknowledge and process your own emotions. Grief, anger, fear, and other feelings are valid responses. Take the time to collect yourself and ensure you're in a composed state to engage in a supportive conversation.
2. Follow Their Lead
Compass encourages parents and trusted adults to create a safe space for open dialogue. Begin by acknowledging that a tragedy has occurred, and then let the child lead the conversation. Allow them to ask questions, express their feelings, and set the pace for discussion.
3. Focus on Safety
Reassure children that their immediate surroundings, including places like Compass, schools, and grocery stores, are typically very safe. Emphasize the security of their daily environments to alleviate concerns about their own safety.
4. Validate Their Feelings
Let children know that it's normal to experience a range of emotions during challenging times. Share your own feelings, whether they are fear, worry, or another emotion. Emphasize that there are no "wrong" emotions, and it's okay to feel what they feel. Understand that a child’s emotional reaction may not match what you expected. Children, and adults for that matter, respond and react in a variety of ways, especially to emotional and uncomfortable information and situations.
5. Limit Media Exposure
Graphic images and disturbing descriptions in the media can have a significant impact on children. Encourage parents to limit their child's exposure to such content and instead opt for age-appropriate news sources or discussions. We encourage parents to consider temporarily deleting apps such as TikTok and Instagram from their children’s phones.
6. Maintain Routine and Monitor Changes
Keeping a regular routine provides a sense of stability for children. Be mindful of any changes in their sleep patterns, appetite, or behavior, as these may be indications of increased anxiety. Consistency and structure can help ease their concerns.
7. Empower through Ownership
Provide children with a sense of control over their emotions. If they exhibit anxiety, teach them simple relaxation techniques like deep breathing. This empowers them to manage their feelings and promotes emotional resilience.
8. There's No "Perfect" Thing to Say
Remember that there's no universally perfect way to address tragedy with children. Being an active listener, creating space for conversation, and reassuring them of their safety go a long way in providing comfort and support.
9. Ask for help
Please reach out to a trusted professional to talk if you are having a hard time processing the current events or finding yourself or a loved one experiencing any of these symptoms and conditions linked to secondary traumatic stress, including hypervigilance, hopelessness, inability to handle complexity, difficulty listening, anger, insomnia, fear, exhaustion, minimizing, or guilt. Asking for help is not weakness. Asking for help is brave.
Help Youth Process Tragedy in a Supportive and Age-appropriate Manner
Discussing tragedy with young people requires sensitivity, patience, and empathy. As clinicians, Compass Health Center encourages parents and trusted adults to prioritize these essential tips when guiding these conversations, while protecting their own mental health as well. By acknowledging emotions, allowing children to lead the discussion, and offering reassurance, we can help young individuals process tragedy in a supportive and age-appropriate manner.
If you have any questions about how to approach this difficult topic or need additional support, please reach out to Compass Health Center. We’re here for you today.
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