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How to talk to your children about traumatic events

Last Updated Apr 24, 2018 at 8:00 pm EDT

Many parents are struggling with how to talk to their kids about events such as the Toronto van attack that killed 10 people and injured 15 others.

CityNews reached out to Dr. Andrew Wong (www.awongpsychology.com), an Etobicoke-based psychologist.

Here are Dr. Wong’s top six tips for parents after a traumatic event:

  1. Limiting social media exposure to children regarding traumatic event – In my research with the traumatized population, children who have experienced horrific events have also benefited from adults who shielded them from images of violence and death. Children have vivid imaginations and seeing horrific events may only amplify those mental images. For young children, they should not be exposed to crime scene photos or images as this may increase a child’s worry and anxiety.
  2. Stay calm and follow your regular routine – Children are perceptive to adult behaviours and they know when parents are worried and upset. If we continuously watch the television or look at our phones to follow the events and express our concern and worry, children will internalize this worry. Therefore, it is important for adults to show children that we are calm.
  3. Provide reassurance – Let your children know that among all of the commotion, everything will be fine. Use your observations to explain how you know that you and the family are safe. For example, you can let your children know that the police are on the scene and an investigation is underway and the violent person has been caught. If your child becomes fearful of walking on the sidewalk to go to school, reassure him or her that they have walked this route on many occasions and nothing bad has ever occurred.
  4. Allow for communication – Listen to your children and what they have to say. This provides parents with insight into your child’s thought process. We may not always know how to respond with words but if children see that we are listening and allowing them to share their thoughts, they will likely feel the reassurance. If your child’s thoughts appear to be ‘fuzzy,’ prompt them by asking, “What do you mean by that?” Tell me more…” Also allow for children to express their feelings and mirror those feelings. For example, when a child tells you that they are sad about the situation, let them know that you are sad as well. This shows that it is safe to feel sadness.
  5. Discuss the positives after the event – As exemplified by many people in this city and around the world, a traumatic event has the ability to bring people together. Share thoughts and images of people displaying positive (or prosocial) behaviours such as delivering flowers and writing well-wishes.
  6. Seek assistance – Anxiety and worries, for the majority of children, will subside after a matter of days for such events. If your child, however, continues to show fear, anxiety, and worry after the course of a few weeks to a month, you may want to seek help through your family doctor, psychologist, or therapist.