“How do I talk to children about trauma and loss?” This is one of the most common questions I get asked by parents. Finding the language to speak to children about things that are painful and frightening even for grown ups, can be very difficult. But it is by finding the right words that we help children build up an emotional language of their own.
Emotional language is an essential part of developing Emotional Intelligence, which is part of building what psychologists call ‘resilience’. Resilience is simply a way of describing how easily kids bounce back from set-backs. We know as professionals, that when we help kids express their feelings, they can understand them better and bounce back from them faster.
Parents often understand this intuitively as well. However it’s much harder for a parent to sit with their child and witness their pain, their sadness, or their fear. Many parents want to take away those feelings – but what children need to learn is how to experience them, safely. Learning that emotions are an important and natural part of life – even the difficult ones – is a huge part of developing resilience. The most important message I share with parents is that there are no BAD feelings. Only BIG ones.
When we experience powerful feelings, both children and adults can feel overwhelmed. There is biology at play here as well as psychology. Stress hormones like cortisol are released in our brains when we feel afraid, or angry or sad. Our heart rate changes, and blood pressure increases. Long term exposure to these changes brought on by stress has been shown to affect brain development in children. It’s called ‘toxic stress’ and can be very damaging. Therefore, helping children to release their big, scary feelings is an incredibly important job for any parent to do. Getting it right will literally wire your child to be able to positively manage stress as an adult.
Here are my Seven Solutions for talking about trauma and loss with your child:
1. Talk about your own feelings first, with someone other than your child.
This is vital. I cannot emphasise this enough. Never knowingly enter a conversation with your child when you need an adult to confide in yourself. Whenever possible, make sure you are fully resourced and well supported yourself. If this means employing a coach, finding a counsellor or joining a support community to find the right listening friend – please do so. You may not always be able to predict when your child will need you to listen to them, but you can always choose to find someone appropriate to listen to you.
2. Be proactive. Find some resources that you feel comfortable using with your child to introduce the topic safely, age appropriately.
There are hundreds of beautiful, sensitive children’s books available to talk about specific topics such as domestic abuse, grieving, divorce and emotions. Do a google search to find something you feel comfortable with and open the conversation. Try reading a story that suits your child’s situation, at a quiet time when you can be fully present with them. Bedtime stories can be about all kinds of things, don’t shy away from stories that seem sad or approach anger, worry or fear as their theme.
3. Invite your child to share their thoughts and feelings without judgement.
Approach your child as you would approach any adult friend, with a willingness to listen to their thoughts with an open mind. Try not to tell them they are being silly, or they must try harder, or that they just ‘don’t understand’. As much as possible, let them know that their feelings and thoughts are valid and worthy.
4. Acknowledge their perspective and empathise.
Arm yourself with a few useful phrases and a calm attitide. Words like ‘That sounds really hard for you’ or ‘I can understand how upsetting that must be’ are powerful. However much you may want to change the subject or ‘fix’ the problem – resist. Remind yourself how beneficial it feels when you are given a space to be heard, and commit to doing this for your child as often as you can.
5. Help them to figure out ways they can solve their problem, with your support.
All feelings are valid, but not all behaviour is. When your child needs your help to work out a new approach that will make their life easier – help them. Offer some solutions at home that honour emotional expression, like a calm down corner. Check out this article for a more detailed exploration.
6. Be an example of how to be emotionally healthy for your child.
This doesn’t mean being perfectly in control all the time. On the contrary, it means showing yourself love and compassion when you need to. Being kind to yourself. Asking for help. Finding an appropriate place to share your own sadness or anger or worry, if you need to. And when you get things wrong, apologise to them by acknowledging you lost your temper. Name your own emotions for them, so that they recognise emotions in other people as well as in themselves.
7. Play with your child, the way they want you to play with them.
It’s hard to find the energy sometimes to play the way children really want us to play with them. But play is the primary language all children have for expressing concepts, and learning new things. By entering their play world with them, you can experience their world as they experience it. Find out how to do it and why it matters, here.