Helping Kids Deal with Tragedy or Grief
Written By Savvy Auntie Staff Writers
By Christina Strong
In times of tragedy or during moments of grief, helping your niece or nephew through the difficult situation can be challenging. Children, unlike adults, don’t quite see or understand the world the way an adult does. Depending on the circumstances and the severity of the situation, it can make understanding and finding a solution to your niece’s or nephew’s encounter with a traumatic event that more challenging. Traumatic events can happen at a moment’s notice—maybe in your own personal life and family, maybe in the country or around the world. Wherever and whenever those events may occur, knowing how to help your niece and nephew deal with the experience can be one of the best tools you have as an aunt. To help you develop and establish ways to support a child in your life dealing with trauma, we’ve enlisted two experts to answer various questions on how to help a child deal with a traumatic experience or grief.
Cynthia Divino, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with 27 years of experience in treating children and specializing in trauma. She is currently the Executive Director of the Boulder Institute for Psychotherapy and Research (BIPR), an organization that specializes in the treatment of trauma.
Dr. Fredrick Capaldi has more than 38 years as a practicing psychotherapist, specializing in children, families, and adolescents. Dr. Capaldi heads Outreach Concern, a school-based counseling agency providing urgently needed, cost-effective counseling and support services to help students and their parents eliminate the barriers that impact classroom performance. Outreach Concern provides clients with access to a comprehensive program of pupil personnel services and a 24/7 crisis team response.
How should aunts talk to a child about a traumatic event?
Dr. Capaldi: Reassurance and support is key. However, it’s important that whoever is providing this information is able to model this behavior when speaking with the child versus being overwhelmed by the event itself. It’s important to let children express how they feel about what they witnessed or heard, validating and explaining that it’s normal and reasonable to be frightened and have questions when a crisis or traumatic event occurs. It’s also extremely important to point out that the environments the children go to (home, school, etc.) are safe places; and parents, teachers and other significant individuals in their lives are there to help, support, and listen to them
Is there a way to "cheer up" a child after they have experienced a traumatic event?
Dr. Divino: It may be helpful to distract a child with activities that make them happy. It is generally not a good idea to say things like "Cheer up, it is not that bad" because it invalidates the child's experience. The child is more likely to be able to be distracted if they know an important adult in their life has heard their concerns about a situation and takes those concerns seriously.
How do you correct misleading information a child may have heard from other sources about an event for clarification?
Dr. Capaldi: Reporting traumatic events, such as the one in Connecticut, oftentimes the information that the media presents in the beginning is not always accurate. Therefore, there’s a greater opportunity for misinformation, which can impact experience, emotions, and recovery. First, find out what the child has witnessed or heard. When the child describes the event or information they’ve been exposed to, provide them an open forum, listen, don’t interrupt, and let them provide you with the data on their terms. As you acquire information that contradicts what the child presented, provide it in a non-threatening manner that supports mutual discussion and acceptance; speak to facts, don’t make assumptions; allow for questions. Explain that in early reporting, there’s often a tendency to get misinformation that’s confusing to everyone; and as you become aware of additional information, you will share it. Once again, the key is reassurance, re-clarification, support, and recognizing that children want to know, so make information and feedback about the event accurate and age appropriate.
After a traumatic event, should a child be taken to see a trauma counselor or child psychologist?
Dr. Divino: Trauma actually changes the physical structure of the brain and has a lasting impact on both children and adults. It is very wise to have a child work through the traumatic experience. Even if the child is not having significant problems at the time, there can be a delayed response which is often more difficult to resolve later.
What should adults ask other family members involved in the child's life to do for a child during or after they experience a traumatic event? What kind of support should be given?
Dr. Capaldi: A traumatic event that a child is exposed to becomes a traumatic family event. Everyone in the family needs to be part of the process, with ample opportunity to communicate about the needs and emotions of everyone in the child’s life. The more open, responsive, and supportive all family members can be, [the more] avenues and support anchors for the child to use in order to get their life back on track. A traumatic event may be a part of the child and family’s life but not their entire life, and it certainly should not be the child’s entire life. It should be an experience all family members assist each other working through; however, it’s the responsibility of the parent or other significant adults in the child’s life to take an active leadership and highly participative role in recreating the comfort zone the child existed in prior to the traumatic event that impacted their life.
Published: December 24, 2012