Helping Kids Cope With A Traumatic Death: Tips and Tools For Parents
By Azmaira H. Maker, Ph.D.
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The world can be a violent place. With over 160 school shootings, an increase in terrorist attacks, and constant images of war, children are being exposed to terrifying experiences on a regular basis. Although parents try to shelter their children, kids are witnessing or hearing about the violence in classrooms and playgrounds, in the media, and through adult conversations.
As a parent, you want to protect your children, but this isn’t always possible. The best thing you can do for your children is to make sure you are prepared to help them after a sudden death or other traumatic experience. It is imperative that you explain the violence and death to your young children in ways they can understand and cope with given their innocence and immature developmental abilities.
Here are some suggestions for broaching this difficult topic:
- We can explain the traumatic incident to children in simple, non-graphic facts. Kids know what happened. Keeping it a ‘secret’ or making up a story about it may only add confusion and mistrust.
- We can use simple words and simple sentences that avoid hate, racism, and fear. Young children grasp issues better when it is explained in emotionally neutral, brief, and clear ways.
- We can tell children that this is a very sad event that should never have happened.
- Kids may fear talking about it because it is a “secret or forbidden topic.” To create healthy dialogues, we can invite children to ask adults any questions they might have about what happened or about themselves and their loved ones.
- Children often worry, “will it happen to me? Can it happen at our school or in our neighborhood?” We can reassure and comfort children by telling them that this scary event is not an everyday occurrence, and that children are safe.
- We can reinforce and tell children that the adults are working hard to keep all children safe – at home, at school, on the playground, and in the community.
- We can turn our televisions off while children are in the room, and make sure adult conversations take place with only adults in the room.
- We can help children mourn and grieve, and process their thoughts and feelings via books on loss, puppets, drawings, and stories. Children process through “displacement,” because it is safer to express thoughts and feelings in non-direct vs. direct ways. My new book, Where Did My Friend Go? Helping Children With A Traumatic Death is an excellent tool for kids to understand and cope with a sudden and traumatic death.
- We can write letters, draw pictures, and send toys to children who have survived a traumatic incident. Giving back to others can be very healing for kids.
As we live in an increasingly violent world, it is essential that parents not forget the silent victims, the innocent bystanders, the children who are watching, listening, and feeling from the sidelines. Parents and other adult caregivers need to continue to support and help young children cope cognitively and emotionally with ongoing tragedies. Most importantly, if kids are living in fear and worry that it could happen again, at any time, to them and their loved ones, we need to continue to send the powerful reassuring message of hope and safety to children, and deliver the actions that will keep our children and families safe.
Azmaira Maker, Ph.D. is the author of the new book Where Did My Friend Go? Helping Children Cope With A Traumatic Death. She is a licensed clinical psychologist with expertise in trauma, loss, child development, parenting, and psychotherapy. Dr. Maker has over twenty years of experience working with children and families in hospitals, schools, clinical agencies, and non-profit organizations.
Aspiring Families link to book: http://aspiringfamilies.com/where-did-my-friend-go
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