Much has been reported and said in the news about traumatic events reported in a school recently. Many more other incidents occur but are not reported in the news. Let’s take a moment to understand how we can best help our child cope with trauma.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma is an emotional response to an intense event that threatens or causes harm. The harm can be physical or emotional, real or perceived. It can threaten the child or someone close to them. Trauma can be the result of a single event, or it can result from exposure to multiple events over time.
Potentially traumatic events include:
- natural disasters or accidents
- unexpected deaths or diagnoses
- abuse (physical, sexual, or emotional)
- separation from loved ones
- unpredictable parental behaviour due to addiction or mental illness
- witnessing harm to a loved one or pet (e.g., domestic or community violence)
“Many can expect to be affected to a `manageable degree'”, said adjunct associate professor Clare Yeo, Senior Principal Clinical Psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), in response to the recent event.
Affected children will react to these events in different ways. Some will:
- constantly replay the event in their minds
- feel confused or worried, or blame themselves for what happened
- be sad, angry, irritable, guilty or ashamed
- behave in difficult ways, disobey rules, cling to you or avoid other people
- become quiet or withdrawn
- suddenly not be able to do things they could do before, like using the toilet or getting dressed
- have physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches or loss of appetite
- have nightmares, problems sleeping or concentrating.
In the days and weeks after the event, comfort, support and reassurance can help a child feel safe. As a parent, you can help your child manage their fears, guide them through their grief and help them recover healthily.
Supporting Children (of all ages) After A Traumatic Event
Children of all ages need help to cope with trauma and recovering from it in the days and weeks afterwards. Here are some things you can do: Read More
1. Initiate the conversation
Just because your child is not talking about a tragedy does not mean they are not thinking about it. They may sense your discomfort and not want to upset you by bringing it up, or they may be too overwhelmed by their feelings to express them.
Make time to talk with your child about the traumatic event. During the conversation, talk about what has happened and what is going to happen next. To open up the conversation, you can start with questions like these:
- How do you feel about what is happening?
- Are you and your friends talking about what happened?
I am interested in hearing what you think.
2. Reassure them
Trauma can rattle our child’s sense of safety. One goal of the conversation is to provide them with the reassurance that:
- things will get better
- you will be there for them
- they can ask you questions anytime
- they are safe, and so are the people they care about.
Your child will likely have questions too. Their questions can give you clues about how your child is feeling and a chance to reassure your child. For example “Yes, the school is still open. You can go to school and see your friends. All your friends are OK’.
3. Handling reminders of the event
Your child might be frightened by reminders of the event, like smoke after a bushfire.
You can explain what is happening and let your child know that it is OK to be afraid. Reassure them that they are safe now. For example, “You’re scared of the smoke because you think it’s coming from a bushfire. It’s smoke from the neighbour’s barbecue. You’re safe”.
It can also help to talk with older children and teenagers about how reminders of the event or its anniversary might make them feel and how they can cope. For example, ‘Grandma’s passing was a tough time for our family last year. How are you feeling this year? “.
4. Use routine
Family routines help children feel safe and secure. That is why they are important to help your child cope with the trauma.
Here are some ways to use routines to support your child:
- Focus on regular healthy snacks and meals, time for exercise or play outside, and a good night’s sleep. This will help to keep your child’s mind and body healthy as they settle down.
- Try to get your child to school, if possible. This helps them understand that their safe places and familiar people are still there for them. Let their teachers know what has happened. This will help them support and care for your child.
- When you feel your child is ready, encourage your child to get back into the things they enjoyed before the trauma, like playing sport or visiting friends. Look for new positive activities that your child might enjoy.
Helping Teenagers Recover After A Traumatic Event
Every young person is different. After a traumatic event, some teenagers might feel isolated from their peers. In addition to what we have already mentioned above, they may also exhibit the following symptoms of distress:
- overreacting to minor irritations
- repetitively thinking about the traumatic event and talking about it often
- being very protective of family and friends
- returning to younger ways of behaving
- increased need for independence
- self-absorption and caring only about what is immediately important
- loss of interest in school, friends, hobbies, and life in general
- having a pessimistic outlook on life, being cynical and distrusting of others
- depression and feelings of hopelessness
To cope with the trauma, some may get involved in risky behaviour like drinking. Here are some ideas for supporting your teenage child: Read More
1. Explain what happened
Stay with the facts, reassure your child about what has happened, and help put it in context. If a crime was involved, let them know the police are involved. They will talk to the school, the person(s) involved and their parents.
2. Find out what they know
Your teenager may be feeling confused and need more time to absorb what has happened. A few clarifying questions can help:
- That’s interesting, can you tell me more about that?
- What do you mean by…?
- How long have you been feeling…?
Gently prompt (or summarize where necessary) what you are hearing – “It sounds like what you’re feeling is…”. Clarifications help them think through their thoughts but do be mindful of asking too many questions.
Remember that the key purpose of the conversation is to correct any misconceptions your child may have picked up while at the same time offering more concrete information. Temper your questions by observing the body language and reactions of your teenager.
3. Share what you know
Your child will probably also appreciate hearing about your thoughts or feelings and what you’re doing to cope with them. Sharing them with your teenager can be beneficial, with some caveats.
First, you want to communicate that you can handle whatever it is you’re feeling. We hear it often – Be a role model. This applies to emotions, too. Do keep in mind that your feelings might add to or replace the ones children are already experiencing.
Be mindful you do not simply end up talking over their heads, answering questions that weren’t asked, providing information that isn’t useful. We want to avoid satisfying our need to ‘give’ your child something rather than meeting their need to be heard and understood.
4. Encourage them to share their feelings
If you think your teenager is hiding their feelings, encourage your child to express them. Let them know that what they are feeling will be easier to handle over time.
Teenagers may not want to share their feelings with their parents, preferring to talk to their peers instead. Encourage your teenager to talk with their friends if you feel this is a healthy outlet for your child’s emotions. For teenagers, good friends can be like a personal support group.
4. Keep making time to talk
Even if your teenager does not want to talk now, make sure he knows you’re available to talk anytime. It is especially crucial in the wake of traumatic events.
When your child is ready to do so, stop everything so you can listen and respond. Give them your full attention. Make sure you do not jump to conclusions, judge or minimize what they’re saying – no matter how silly or illogical it may seem. Your ability to listen calmly, even to concerns that may seem unrealistic, communicate that their fears are not too frightening to deal with.
Helping School-age Pre-teens Recover After A Traumatic Event
After a traumatic event, children in this age group may spend a lot of time thinking about their safety and the safety of others. They may also feel responsible for the traumatic event and have difficulty concentrating at school.
Other than what we outlined above, here are some other ways you can help them understand and cope with their reactions to and their feelings about the traumatic event: Read More
1. Help them feel safe.
Your child will benefit from your touch – extra cuddling, hugs or just a reassuring pat on the back. It gives them a feeling of security, which is essential in the aftermath of a frightening or disturbing event.
Do not discuss your anxieties with your child or when they are around. Be aware of the tone of your voice, as they will pick up on anxiety quickly.
2. Explain what happened.
Pick a good time to talk. Look for natural openings to have a discussion about the event.
It is always best to learn the details of a traumatic event from a safe, trusted adult – you. Be brief and honest, and allow your child to ask questions. Don’t presume kids are worrying about the same things as adults.
3. Limit exposure to news coverage.
It is especially critical with younger school-age children. Seeing disturbing events recounted on TV or in the newspaper or listening to them on the radio can make them seem to be ongoing. Children who believe bad events are temporary can more quickly recover from them.
4. Acknowledge what your child is feeling.
If a child admits to a concern, do not respond, “Oh, don’t be worried,” because they may feel embarrassed or criticised.
Confirm what you hear – “Yes, I can see that you are worried.”
5. It is okay to answer “I don’t know.”
What your child needs most is someone they trust to listen to their questions, accept their feelings, and be there for them. Do not worry about knowing exactly the right thing to say.
As Piglet said to Winnie the Pooh, “It’s okay to feel Not Very Okay At All“.
Help with Coping After A Traumatic Event
Recovering after a traumatic event takes time, and you and your child don’t have to do it alone. It is always good to check in with teachers and other adults around your child to make sure your child is getting the support they need.
- If you have any concerns about how your child is coping with the trauma, talk with your child’s school teacher. Their school teacher can refer you or your child to counselling services and mental health professionals, local to your child’s school, who can help you and your child.
- If your child prefers anonymity outside of their school, they can speak to one of our senior Elucidation teachers. Our teachers will lend a listening ear. If appropriate and where necessary, they will refer you or your child to guidance counselling services and mental health professionals. Do be patient as they may not have a list of the resources available on hand.
Helplines available to the public:
- National Care Hotline: 1800-202-6868
- Samaritans of Singapore 24-hour Hotline: 1800-221-4444
- Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
- Institute of Mental Health: 6389-2222 (24 hours)
- Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788 (for primary school-aged children)
- AWARE Women’s Helpline: 1800-777-555 (10 am – 6 pm, Monday to Friday)
- CARE Singapore: 6978 2728 (Mon – Fri: 10am – 5pm)
- TOUCHline (By TOUCH Community Services): 1800 377 2252 (Mon – Fri: 9 am – 6 pm)
- Fei Yue Community Service: https://ec2.sg/
(Live chat Weekdays: 10 am – 12 pm; 2 pm – 5 pm; Closed on Public Holidays)
References: Our reading list for this article
- Yeoh, G. (2021 Jul 21). Coping with trauma: Acknowledge incident and talk about emotions, say experts after River Valley High death. Channel News Asia. Retrieved 26 Jul 2021 from Channel News Asia website: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/river-valley-high-death-coping-with-trauma-students-teachers-15254074
- Helping Children Cope After a Traumatic Event. (n.d.) The Child Mind Institute. Retrieved 26 Jul 2021 from https://childmind.org/guide/helping-children-cope-traumatic-event/
- Traumatic events: supporting children in the days and weeks afterwards. (n.d.). Retrieved 26 Jul 2021 from The Raising Children Network website: https://raisingchildren.net.au/preschoolers/connecting-communicating/coping-with-trauma/trauma-support-for-children
- Newman, K. (2015 November 30) Nine Tips for Talking to Kids about Trauma. Retrieved 27 Jul 2021 from The Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley website: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/nine_tips_for_talking_to_kids_about_trauma
- CNN. (2015 November 18). French father explains terror attacks to his young son [Video]. Retrieved 28 Jul 2021 from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2S9An4AX0M