I’ve been asked to write a post for parents on how to speak to children about traumatic experiences, such as 9/11. But, I want to reframe the task, since the most important ingredient to knowing what to say is learning how to listen. Good listening takes a strong foundation of patience, calm energy, wisdom and insight. Here are the basic steps:
- Be in the right space emotionally and psychologically.
If you are traumatized or grieving yourself, it can be hard to hear what your child is saying. You may be more likely to say “you don’t mean that!” or “don’t say that!” This will leave your child feeling as though their experiences are inaccurate, and they might start to think that avoidance and denial are the ways to deal with trauma and grief (which they aren’t).
- See your child’s experience accurately.
Seeing your child’s true intention in their communication and their underlying experience leads to two important things. First, children’s questions often mask underlying needs for such things as reassurance, safety, or comfort. Second, seeing your child helps them to better see themselves, which helps them be better able to care for themselves. The key to mental health is compassionate self-awareness and self-care, and the seeds for this are planted by you!
- Understand the impact of trauma.
Trauma can cause the body’s alarm system to become hypersensitive, particularly to any “trauma triggers”—memories or physical sensations that remind the body of the trauma. Figure out what the triggers are, control exposure to the trigger and then habituate to them—help your child understand that their body is just being triggered, let their body go through its standard red alert protocol but let it also calm back down when it’s done. Help your child thank their body for trying to keep them safe and reassure them that they are.
- Be flexible, open and in the moment.
Let times of trauma and grief come, then let it go when it is time. Our lives mirror the ever-changing pattern of weather and seasons. Though sometimes painful, these times are part of a whole life. They always pass and leave a kaleidoscope of beauty over the course of our lives.
Dr. Ham is a clinical psychologist and Director of the Beth Israel and St. Luke’s Roosevelt program for Healing Emotions and Achieving Resilience to Traumatic Stress (BI-SLR HEARTS), a federally-funded program that serves traumatized children and their families through treatment, education, and advocacy. The program is also part of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. He is also an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University. Dr. Ham specializes in treating families and individuals of all ages through improving relationships with oneself and with others. Dr. Ham received his PhD in Clinical Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He completed his pre-doctoral internship at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School and a two-year Post-Doctoral Fellowship at Children’s Hospital Boston/Harvard Medical School.