How to Talk Your Kids about Trauma

How do I start this conversation?

I've sat here, glaring at a blinking cursor for the last half hour, trying to decide how to help families explain trauma in a realistic and developmentally appropriate way to children, upon whose world a cold and uninvited reality is advanced. When I was a kid, we had fire drills. Now, we plan for shootings. 

Trauma used to be such a distant thing to me. I live in a world geared for my success. I've never had to protect myself against a society that held me in contempt because of my skin color or my hair texture. I've never been diminished because of my gender or sexual orientation. I'm not saying my life has been roses. But what would I know about the kind of trauma that comes flying at you, suddenly and forcefully, in the middle of a peaceful flight across a blue sky? What would I know about trauma that festers and molds, only to reveal itself in a desperate act of violence? What would I know about trauma that the majority of people who look like me have never seen or experienced?

Not much.

But I know enough to be humbled by those who have thrived in a world that looks very different from the one in which I was raised. Their resilience gives me hope that there is a way to make sense of, learn from, and thrive despite the world's and our own cruelties. 

In this blog, I hope to provide the bones of a conversation that can help you explain trauma that lives close to home, trauma that bleeds in through the television, sudden and unexpected trauma, and trauma that creeps and spreads like a virus.

I don't know.

Children ask simple questions. Children ask questions that relentlessly expose their parents' inability to provide answers.  As parents, our hope is to provide something solid onto which our kids can hold when confronted with something as slippery as trauma. The problem is that sometimes there is nothing solid.

Adults can play this game with each other. We can hypothesize and grumble, always knowing that although there really is no answer to the question of a civilian plane shot out of the sky, we need to act like we have either an explanation or at least the right complaint to bolster our sense of reality. But a child's wisdom seeks an honest answer and is disappointed by anything less. This is why it may be better not to try and provide an explanation where one does not exist. 

In other words, harness your ignorance. Saying "I don't know", may be the best answer you can give a child who asks why those children on the TV can't get food, or to a question about the cause of something as unimaginable as 9/11. Letting your children see that you don't have all the answers is an exercise in building resilience.

Simple descriptions

How do you talk to kids about death? When I am asked this question, I always get a knot in my stomach. There's no script for something that difficult, but typically I encourage parents to give simple and honest descriptions of the truth. It takes time for children to understand death's finality. Death is hard enough to understand as an adult. The best way I know how to describe death to a child is to use direct language. It is okay to say that someone died without knowing how to explain death. One of the best ways to approach talking about trauma is to accept the reality that some events cannot be sufficiently explained. 

Limit Exposure

I once worked with a parent who intentionally removed her child from school when she knew the school was going to practice fire drills or other safety trainings. She did this because she knew that her son's reaction to these events would likely poor as a result of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress that developed after he was physically abused by a relative at a young age. Because of this, her son's exposure to potentially stressful events provoked him to fear and intense anxiety. You know your children better than anyone. Limit their exposure to television or other media that could over-expose them to traumatic stimuli. 

Keep emotional descriptions brief

Perhaps the most important thing you can do when discussing trauma is managing your own emotions. Children need to see parents express their emotions healthily. It is okay to describe how you feel or how families of traumatized persons might feel, but it is best to keep these descriptions brief. Talk about emotions that children will understand. Sadness is better than depression. Even fear and grief are okay to talk about. 

This is one of those jobs you forgot that you were signing up for when you got into this parenting gig. However, when managed well, discussing trauma with your kids can be an experience that helps them grow into emotionally mature and healthy young adults. Let your children see you uncertain. Give them simple descriptions of events with concrete language. Keep descriptions of emotions brief, and limit their exposure to traumatic stimuli. It may be a hard conversation to know how to start, but it is also one your children need to have with you.

Dr. Mathis Kennington