Talking to children about tragic events

When it comes to discussing tragedy with young children, honesty might not always be the best policy, a CHOC psychologist says.

“Shielding them from any exposure should always be the first effort,” Dr. Mery Taylor says. “Children can be unpredictable about how they may respond to information, and even events far away can trigger a traumatic stress response.”

Children, as well as adults, can suffer affects from watching a traumatic event unfold on TV or even hearing about it. Given the potential short- and long-term consequences of coping with a trauma, parents should consider the proximity of the event and whether the child truly must know about specific details of the event.

What is trauma?

  • Trauma is a shocking, scary or dangerous experience that leads to a strong feeling of sadness, stress or worry.
  • Traumas can be natural disasters, like a hurricane or earthquake, or a life event, like the sudden loss of a loved one. They can also be caused by others. For example, as in abuse, car accident, crime or a terrorist attack.
  • Traumas can result from direct experience, witnessing, or repeated or intense exposure to the trauma (i.e., TV or overhead conversations).

Experiencing a traumatic event is shocking and can make you fear for your safety and can contribute to traumatic stress symptoms.

Traumatic stress symptoms can include:

  • Being easily upset or angry
  • Feeling anxious, jumpy or confused
  • Being irritable or uncooperative
  • Feeling empty or numb

Sometimes, shielding children from tragic events can be difficult. Dr. Taylor recommends that parents who are considering discussing a tragedy or trauma with a child consider some other factors:

  • Proximity of the event: When a tragedy occurs close to home, it may be more difficult to control what the child might see or hear. And even if unaware, children still might sense tension and anxiety from adults around them.
  • Other caregivers: Together, discuss your concerns about what and how you might share about an event with your child. Come up with a consensus so that those close to the child on the same page and presenting a consistent message. Consider what the school or teachers may relay to the student body. Often, a school district may send out a position statement on tragedies affecting the community. How might this impact what you share with your child?
  • Siblings and older peers: If your young child is around much older children, consider the likelihood that she may hear something frightening. In these cases, it may be helpful to inoculate her by going ahead and giving her some minimal information while keeping her developmental age in mind. You can always go back and answer more questions as they come. It is not recommended to ask an older child (8 to 12 years old) to not talk about the event with their younger sibling. This would likely only pique their curiosity.
  • Your child’s personality: All children are different. You know your child best. Is she likely to be scared by tragic news more than most children? Or is she the kid who would likely go explain the event to her class? Let her personality help guide your decision.
  • Media: School, other children, television, computers and smartphones may lead to your children knowing more than you think. Be sure to ask about their day; let them know you are there for them; and notice changes in behavior or mood that might be an indication that they may have heard something that doesn’t make sense in their world.

We understand that as the caretaker of a child, it can be stressful to make decisions about relaying tragic news to them. Here are more quick tips for parents on talking to children about traumatic events:

Quick tips for parents

  • Children need comforting and frequent reassurance of their safety.
  • Let your child lead the discussion and only answer questions that they ask.
  • Be honest and open about the tragedy or disaster using age-appropriate language. This may take the form of very simple and concise language.
  • Encourage children to express their feelings through talking, drawing or playing.
  • Try to maintain your daily routines as much as possible.
  • Monitor your own anxiety and reactions to the event. Ensure you are practicing self-care.
  • Emphasize what people are doing to help others impacted by the tragedy.

Preschool-aged children

  • Reassure young children that they’re safe. Provide extra comfort and contact by discussing the child’s fears at night, telephoning during the day, and providing extra physical comfort.
  • Get a better understanding of a child’s feelings about the tragedy. Discuss the events with them and find out their fears and concerns. Answer all questions they may ask and provide them loving comfort and care.
  • Structure children’s play so that it remains constructive, serving as an outlet for them to express fear or anger.

Grade school-aged children

  • Answer questions in clear and simple language.
  • False reassurance does not help this age group. Don’t say that tragedies will never happen again; children know this isn’t true. Instead, remind children that tragedies are rare, and say “You’re safe now, and I’ll always try to protect you,” or “Adults are working very hard to make things safe.”
  • Children’s fears often worsen around bedtime, so stay until the child falls asleep so she feels protected.
  • Monitor children’s media viewing. Images of the tragedy are extremely frightening to children, so consider significantly limiting the amount of media coverage they see.
  • Allow children to express themselves through play or drawing, and then talk to them about it. This gives you the chance to “retell” the ending of the game or the story they have expressed in pictures with an emphasis on personal safety.
  • Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Part of keeping discussion of the tragedy open and honest is not being afraid to say you don’t know how to answer a child’s question. When this happens, explain to your child that tragedies cause feelings that even adults have trouble dealing with. Temper this by explaining that adults will still always work hard to keep children safe and secure.

  Adolescents

  • Adolescents may try to downplay their worries, so encourage them to work out their concerns about the tragedy.
  • Children with prior trauma or existing emotional problems such as depression may require careful supervision and additional support.
  • Monitor their media exposure to the event and information they receive online.
  • Adolescents may turn to their friends for support. Encourage friends and families to get together – virtually if need be – and discuss the event to allay fears.

Should parents opt to discuss tragic events with children, or should the child already be aware of the circumstances, Mental Health America and National Child Traumatic Stress Network offer more ways parents can talk to their children about tragedy-related anxiety and help them cope.

If you think your child would benefit from speaking to a pediatric mental health professional, ask your pediatrician for a referral to a pediatric psychologist.

This article was updated Jan. 15, 2021.

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How parents can help kids navigate holiday disappointment during COVID-19

By Dr. Mery Taylor, pediatric psychologist at CHOC

mindfulness
Dr. Mery Taylor, pediatric psychologist at CHOC

By this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, many children have experienced disappointment about missing out on birthday parties, family vacations or special occasions they had been looking forward to. If your child or teen feels disappointed right now over missed holiday celebrations, let her express her feelings, and validate them. Share your own disappointments and how you are managing your feelings.

As a parent, it is difficult to see your child experience disappointment. As adults, we have the perspective of knowing that there will be other holiday seasons in their future. During this time, children will be most comforted by parents’ words of reassurance that you will get through these challenging times together, and that life will return to normal eventually.

Remind children why things have changed

It can be helpful to remind them about why things are different right now. Remind your child that as a community, we are all doing our part to curb the spread of COVID-19

Discuss changes in plans earlier vs. later

For most young children, it will be helpful to start to discuss changes in plans earlier than later. Start slow and return to the topic several times, each time adding a little more detail. Ask for your children’s input on how they would like to spend the holidays given the stay-at-home order and how they might celebrate with loved ones who they cannot see in person. For example, they can help you bake your favorite holiday recipe to drop off on someone’s doorstep or create a special holiday craft to mail to a loved one who lives far away.

Limit children’s exposure to the news

At this point, all but very young children are clear that something has drastically changed in their world. While it is important to keep very young children away from the daily news which can include death tolls and speculations, parents should be honest about what we are trying to accomplish by social distancing. Here’s an explanation of social distancing. It could be helpful to ask them what they already know, debunk misinformation, and provide additional information for better understanding and clarification.

Let them use their imagination

Have fun thinking about what makeup holiday celebrations and other gatherings with family and friends would look like. Let them use their imaginations on what decorations they would have, food they would eat and people they most want to see.

Celebrate special events in a creative way:

  • Use technology such as FaceTime, Zoom or Skype to enjoy a holiday meal with loved ones who don’t live in your household. Consider sharing recipes between family members and friends ahead of time and cooking your meals together over video chat.
  • Host a virtual party — decorate a backdrop, make a music playlist and create a themed game.
  • Join friends for a virtual cookie or gingerbread house decorating party.
  • Have a virtual, interactive watch party for your favorite holiday movie using Netflix Party or Disney +’s GroupWatch. These services allow you to synchronize your show or movie with friends and family, and chat while you’re watching.
  • If your traditional outings during the holiday season aren’t an option due to COVID-19, consider planning a virtual field trip and inviting families from other households. Many museums and other attractions are offering free virtual visits during this time.
  • Help your child prepare a special meal or dessert for the holiday or special day.
  • Go into nature for a scavenger hunt or take a drive through a holiday light display.
  • Organize a Zoom or Skype call with family and friends to sing your favorite holiday songs.

Building resiliency

Although this pandemic is not the situation that we would have chosen for our kids to face, experiencing adverse events, with their parent’s support, will help kids build resiliency. They will be able to look back on this time and reflect on how they were creative in finding ways to celebrate holidays and how they found new ways to entertain themselves at home, while persevering over new challenges.

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Talking politics with your kids: Advice for parents

With election season here, it’s hard to miss the onslaught of media coverage and chatter about political issues and candidates. While this is an important time for our country, it can be overwhelming for parents wondering how to talk to kids about politics.

“Politics are front and center right now, making it a great time to talk to kids about the democratic process,” says Dr. Mery Taylor, a CHOC pediatric psychologist. “It’s not something that is abstract – we are all watching it unfold. Now that many kids are back in school, there is sure to be buzz about current events. It’s important for parents to get ahead of the information so they can be prepared.”

Starting a conversation with kids about politics

Dr. Taylor encourages parents to start with the basics. Here are some conversation starters she encourages parents to use:

  • What is a democracy?
  • What are the roles of people in elected office?
  • Why is this happening now?

Next, emphasize your personal responsibility as a citizen to vote, Dr. Taylor says.

“Talk to your kids about what it means to have elected officials that represent the diverse society we live in, and how that helps everybody,” she says. “Discuss the values that are important for your family. It is likely your children know who you will be voting for, but why?”

Parents can use a discussion on politics and the election as a way to model their critical thinking process for their children. To do that, Dr. Taylor encourages parents to talk about the values that shape their decision.

“Explain to your children the process of evaluating candidates’ policies and the impact of those policies on individuals, the environment and the American society as a whole,” Dr. Taylor says. “Children and adolescents are naturally curious creatures and you might be surprised by the questions that they will ask. You may find a conversation with your child or teen might even help you to articulate your own views more clearly.”

Parents can also tailor this conversation to their child’s personal interests, Dr. Taylor says.

“Focus on things that your child cares about. Are they passionate about saving turtles? Help them learn about candidates’ views on animal welfare. Do they want to be a business owner someday? Help them research candidates’ views on small business. Are they interested in health and science? Find out about the candidates’ policies on science and education funding,” Dr. Taylor says. “There are sure to be issues that speak to your child’s interest and help them feel connected to the election, and why politics matter as a whole.”

Share your plan to vote with your child. Take them along to the mailbox or polling station, depending on your voting plan.

How to deal with your child’s stress over the election

If you think your child is probably not affected by the election process, think again – this can be an overwhelming and stressful time for children and teens as well. Dr. Taylor offers the following tips for parents worried about how to talk to kids about politics:

  • Acknowledge your children’s feelings. Ask what they feel and why. Listen closely and try to connect with your child’s emotions before problem solving. If they have concerns or fears about a particular issue or how it may affect your family, reassure them that they are safe and that your family will work out any issue together.
  • Keep the conversation positive. Focus on the positive aspects of a candidate or an issue. Take this opportunity to explain to your kids how to voice their opinions with respect, even when he/she doesn’t agree with someone else. Talk about what you believe and why in a respectful way, too. For younger children, keep the conversation light. For teens, ask them what they’ve heard at school, and/or what they’re unclear about – their answers may surprise you.
  • Talk about the election process. Explain to them that everyone has a voice. While they may not be able to vote, encourage your kids to get involved at school or in the community with issues that are important to them, such as the environment or the economy, for example. Let them know their contributions can make a big difference.
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How to help your teen cope with COVID-19 cancellations

By Dr. Mery Taylor, pediatric psychologist at CHOC

To high school seniors, schools being closed doesn’t equal a vacation – to them, this is time they won’t get back with their friends.  It’s normal for teens to feel anxious during this period of their lives, as they close one chapter and begin another. However, teens may feel especially anxious as they realize they may never walk through their high school hallways again, attend prom, perform in their final theater production, compete in their final season, or celebrate graduation.

If you’re a parent or guardian of a teen who is struggling with a loss of control and trying to cope with cancelled celebrations, here’s tips for talking about it and coping.

Allow your teen to grieve

For most high school seniors, sometime in March 2020 they unknowingly experienced their last regular day of school with so many things left undone. I’m sure there were tears shed as this realization set in, along with confusion, anxiety and despair at the loss of their senior year.

During this time, it will be important to allow your student to cope and grieve in her own way. Some students will cope by throwing themselves into their academics, focusing on end of the year projects, and last-minute scholarship applications. Others may struggle through the typical stages of grief — denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. It is typical to jump back and forth between these stages.

As a parent, you may find yourself in a similar boat — accepting the new normal, only to be saddened the next day when you realize another disappointment due to COVID-19. This is normal. Many people feel like this when experiencing a loss of control over their circumstances.

Use dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) skills to help you feel back in control

During this time of uncertainty, your teen may be struggling with a loss of control. Using skills associated with dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), you and your teen can help to regain that lost sense of control.

  • Accept your emotions — What you are going through is not normal. What is normal is feeling emotional in these circumstances. Remember, you are the boss of your emotions. Name the emotion and put a label on it. Take a break and spend some time soothing yourself. The idea is to not let your emotions stop you from doing what you can.
  • STOP — This stands for stop, take a step back, observe and proceed Take a step back and observe your emotions. Let your emotions calm. Then observe the situation as you would if it were someone else facing it. What would you tell someone else to do?
  • Practice radical acceptance — Radical acceptance is the complete and total acceptance of reality. This means that you accept the reality in your mind, heart and body. You stop fighting against the reality and accept it.
  • Use your wise mind —Make decisions about the situation with your wise mind. Your emotion mind will urge you to give up, act impulsively, rage, or give up when faced with disappointment. Wait for your wise mind to be in charge. Your wise mind can take in new information, be flexible in considering alternatives, and be creative in thinking of solutions.

Marking this milestone

Taking the time to celebrate milestones is an important stepping stone in a person’s life, and an opportunity to observe achieving a goal or the fact that someone is entering a new stage in life. A high school graduation marks a time of academic success and transition to adulthood. Even though the current senior class’ year was cut short, it does not make their efforts any less significant.

Senior commencement ceremonies have always been just as much about the students’ past accomplishments as a view toward their future. Particularly, in these times, it will be important to highlight their strengths and virtues as they enter the adult world. Finally, marking this milestone is also an opportunity for the caregivers, teachers, family and friends, who have watched them grow and work hard for this moment, to share in the student’s triumphs and acknowledge their hard work.

The celebration

The celebration or milestone you and your student had originally envisioned may not look the same today, but it can be just as memorable. Take time to talk through what is important to you and your student and find creative ways to make it happen. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Mom wants pictures — While practicing social distancing, find a friend or hire a photographer to shoot pictures of your senior in a cap and gown in a lovely outdoor setting.
  • The student wants to dance — Use Zoom to meet up with friends and have a virtual prom.
  • Teachers want to see you in your cap and gown — Organize a drive-by parade around the school.
  • Dad wants to brag — Use FaceTime or Zoom to connect with family and friends. Think about putting a slide show together of your child through the years. Senior, don’t forget to wear your cap and gown.
  • Friends want to graduate together — Create a virtual meetup on Zoom, or practice safe-distancing in a park to ‘move the tassel’ from right to left and throw your caps in the air.
  • Siblings want to participate — Decorate the family car, driveway or front lawn with well-wishes.

Congratulations to the senior class of 2020! Best wishes for your new adventures.

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Cómo hablar con los niños sobre la decepción durante COVID-19

Por la Dra. Mery Taylor, psicóloga pediátrica en CHOC

Con las escuelas cerradas y la práctica del distanciamiento social en vigencia, es ciertamente comprensible que los niños se sientan decepcionados en este momento por perderse las fiestas de cumpleaños, las excursiones o las vacaciones que habían estado esperando.  Si su hijo o adolescente se siente decepcionado en este momento, permítale expresar sus sentimientos y validarlos.  Comparta sus propias decepciones y cómo usted maneja sus sentimientos.

Como padre, es difícil ver a un hijo experimentar la decepción.  Como adultos, tenemos la perspectiva de saber que habrá otras fiestas de cumpleaños, excursiones y celebraciones en el futuro.  Durante este período, los niños se sentirán más reconfortados con  las palabras de seguridad de los padres expresándoles que pasarán juntos estos tiempos difíciles y que finalmente la vida volverá a la normalidad.

Recuérdeles a los niños por qué las cosas han cambiado

Puede ser útil recordarles por qué las cosas son diferentes en este momento.  Recuérdele a su hijo que, como comunidad, nos estamos uniendo para “aplanar la curva” y evitar la propagación de COVID-19.

Hable sobre los cambios de planes lo antes que pueda

Para la mayoría de los niños pequeños, será útil comenzar a hablar sobre los cambios de planes más vale temprano que tarde.  Comience despacio y vuelva al tema varias veces, cada vez agregando un poco más de detalle.  Solicite la opinión de sus hijos sobre cómo pueden cumplir con el evento, aunque es posible que no puedan ir físicamente a ningún lugar o tener interacciones en persona. Por ejemplo, ¿pueden crear una tarjeta de cumpleaños para un amigo cuya fiesta fue cancelada y enviársela por correo, y llamarlo o hacer un chat de video para desearle un feliz cumpleaños?

Limite la exposición de los niños a las noticias

En este momento, la mayoría de los niños están en casa sin poder ir a la escuela y está claro que algo ha cambiado drásticamente en su mundo. Si bien es importante mantener a los niños muy pequeños alejados de las noticias diarias que pueden incluir el número de muertos y las especulaciones, los padres deben ser honestos sobre lo que estamos tratando de lograr mediante el distanciamiento social.  He aquí una explicación del distanciamiento social. Podría ser útil preguntarles lo que ya saben, desacreditar información errónea y proporcionar información adicional para una mejor comprensión y aclaración.

Consejos para niños mayores

Es probable que los niños mayores y los adolescentes sean más conscientes de que hay ocasiones especiales que quizás nunca regresen, como bailes escolares, representaciones teatrales y graduaciones.  Asegúreles que su escuela y su maestro harán lo que puedan para resarcir esto.

Deje que usen su imaginación

Diviértanse pensando en fiestas de cumpleaños con maquillaje, excursiones y otras reuniones con familiares y amigos.  Permítales usar su imaginación sobre las decoraciones que tendrían, la comida que comerían y las personas que más quisieran ver.

Celebre los eventos especiales de una manera creativa:

  • Organice una fiesta virtual: arme un telón de fondo, haga una lista de reproducción de música y cree un juego temático.
  • Únase con los amigos para un recorrido virtual por el museo. Muchos museos y otras atracciones ofrecen visitas virtuales gratuitas durante este tiempo.
  • Ayude a su hijo a preparar una comida o un postre particular para las vacaciones o para un día especial.
  • Salga a la naturaleza para una aventura única con aquellos con quienes vive.
  • Llame a su amigo en su cumpleaños y cántele “Feliz cumpleaños”.
  • Comparta una comida virtual con amigos y familiares.
  • Organice una noche de juegos virtuales.

Crear hábitos de resistencia

Aunque esta pandemia no es la situación que hubiéramos elegido para que nuestros hijos se enfrenten, experimentar eventos adversos, con el apoyo de sus padres, ayudará a los niños a desarrollar la capacidad de resistencia. Ellos podrán mirar hacia atrás en este momento y reflexionar sobre cómo fueron creativos para encontrar formas de conectarse con sus amigos en línea, cómo encontraron nuevas formas de entretenerse en casa y cómo perseveraron ante nuevos desafíos, como asistir a la escuela por internet.

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