Trauma - How To Talk To Your Kids About It

Trauma - How To Talk To Your Kids About It

Children think deeply about things, but might not always have the words or skills to describe how they are feeling following a traumatic event. Find out how you can help them and discover some resources, in a range of languages, about how to talk to kids about trauma. 

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What is a traumatic event? 

A traumatic event is when something happens that is very traumatic. 

Some examples include: 

  • being in an accident
  • someone dying
  • being hurt by someone
  • terrorist attack
  • natural disasters, such as an earthquake or flooding 

How do I talk to my child after a traumatic event?

Children may not respond to trauma in a way that a parent or caregiver may expect. For example, their response may be delayed - it can sometimes take months for things to build up and for parents, caregivers or teachers to realise they are having problems and need help. 

Tamariki think deeply about things, but might not always know the words to say how they are feeling. If they don't have all the facts or are struggling to say in words how they feel, they might use their imagination to fill the gaps and express their feelings through behaviours – being withdrawn, sulking, being naughty, tantrums, refusing to go to school and so on.  

Sometimes this results in misunderstandings where what they imagine is more frightening than what happened.

Also, as they get more information or more understanding of a traumatic event, they may become upset after seeming to be OK for some time. 

Some things to think about when talking to your child after a traumatic experience: 

  • don't assume your child's understanding about what happened is the same as your own - find out by talking to them, listening to them and watching how they behave
  • children's understanding is often limited, they might only remember parts of what happened and they can sometimes imagine things that didn't happen
  • parents can help their children by sorting out their own reactions and feelings
  • it's important to reassure your child, but reassuring them won't help until they know what happened and any misunderstandings have been cleared up 

How can I help my child feel better? 

Giving your children lots of love will help, but there are lots of things you can do to help them feel better: 

Talk with them 

Talk openly with your child and remind them the traumatic event is over and they are safe. Talk with them about how they are feeling and let them know it's OK to feel scared, worried or sad. Let them know it's OK to ask you questions, and answer their questions the best you can using words they understand. 

Be kind and patient 

Be understanding about how your child is feeling. They may have trouble sleeping or be naughty. While it might be hard for you that they are doing these things it's important you give them the time they need to feel better. 

Let them know they are not alone 

Remind your child other children are feeling similar things and 1 day they will start to feel better. Share that you are upset too, but you know that you will all be fine together. 

Keep up routines

Try to keep to your routines, doing things you usually would do - meal times, bed times and going to school. 

Things not to do 

There are some things you shouldn't do following a traumatic experience:

  • don't talk too much about what happened at the traumatic event
  • try not to tell them 'do not worry' or 'do not cry' - children need to know it's OK to feel like they do
  • don't be over-protective 

Check out the Ministry of Health's tips on helping tamariki after a traumatic experience

Some resources to help

Mental health advice for coping after a traumatic event

The Ministry of Health and 1737 (the mental health line) developed 2 resources to help those in mental distress as a result of traumatic events, such as the Christchurch mosque attacks or Whakaari/White Island volcanic eruption.

The documents below are also available at the Ministry of Health's page Mental health advice for coping after a traumatic event.

Coping after a traumatic event

Watch 'Coping after a traumatic event' in New Zealand Sign Language.

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Supporting your kids after a traumatic event

Watch 'Supporting your kids after a traumatic event' in New Zealand Sign Language.

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Ministry of Health NZ advice for helping children

Children have their own ways of dealing with trauma according to their stage of development. Often their response is not what may be expected and may not show up for some time. Parents and others often worry and frequently are not sure of the best way to help them. Find out more about the common reactions of children who experience traumatic events or hear about them happening to their family or friends. Check the suggestions about ways of helping them. Read more ...

The Conversation - how to talk to children about terrorism

When a child has directly experienced extremely distressing events, or witnessed them through the news and social media, it is entirely normal for them to experience much higher levels of distress than usual. Read an article from academics about how to talk to children about terrorism.

Save The Children's 10 tips for helping children cope with disaster

After a disaster, parents, teachers and caregivers look for advice on how to help children cope with the after-effects. These 10 tips from Save the Children's emergency response experts can ensure that children get the support they need - well after the disaster is over. Read more ...

Sparklers website

You could try Sparklers at home. There are fun wellbeing activities to support whānau and their tamariki to look after their wellbeing and feel good. Sparklers is backed by both science, NZ research and wellbeing specialists.

AllRight? website

All Right? is a collaboration between Canterbury DHB and the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand. It was launched following the Canterbury earthquakes but has resources and information on wellbeing which could be of use to anyone going through a hard time. 

Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time in NZ


1737 logo

If over the following days and weeks following a traumatic event, distress or stress symptoms are increasing, or your child feels they are not coping, seek help early. Professional support is important. Your family doctor is a good starting point, or for support with grief, anxiety, distress or mental wellbeing, you can call or text 1737 - free, anytime, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week - to talk it through with a trained counsellor.

Read about how to cope after a natural disaster

See KidsHealth's section on emotional and mental well-being

This page last reviewed 18 April 2022.

Call Healthline on 0800 611 116 any time of the day or night for free health advice when you need it