Helping your child to process traumatic experiences

Let’s talk about how to help your child process and move past very traumatic experiences – anything from a death of a pet, the loss of a parent, moving home, the experience of a fire within the household or having an accident on a bicycle. Another example would be if your child experienced or saw you in a moment of panic, where you were scared or in a highly stressed environment. They obviously feel your anxiety and your fear and it can be just as petrifying for them as it was for you at that moment.

What do we do to help children move past these experiences so that it does not harbor them, fester or later appear as anxieties or irrational fears and so on? We don’t want to sweep these situations under the rug. We don’t want to pretend that they didn’t happen. You’ll most certainly want to rehash this with your child and help them process.

The best way to do this is through storytelling and reliving the situation that happened. For example, there was a fire in your apartment. You want to talk your child through that. So, you want to take them back to where the incident happened and you want to say to them, “The candle was burning and then it made a big fire. Mommy came into the bathroom and tried to throw a wet towel on the candle. Did you see that? Is that what happened? Then the whole candle exploded, and the flames got even bigger because of all the candle wax and the water. And Mommy was scared. Mommy screamed! Mommy was frightened.”

Let your child fill in the gaps as you are using this emotional language to teach them what you went through in terms of emotions. Let them agree, let them fill in, ask them what happened next.

“So, then Mommy took a shower and sprayed it onto the fire. And then what happened? The flames got even bigger because there was so much candle wax! And eventually, the fire was out. But Mommy was very scared. Mommy shouted. Mommy got loud. Were you also scared?”

This is the way that you are letting your child know that yes, you were afraid, and it was a highly stressful situation, but everything is okay now. You are able to talk about it and move past the situation and not just sweep it under the rug.

You want to do this about an hour or two after the incident once your child has calmed down with you. So, you need to calm yourself down, get your child calm and then kind of rehash it. And then maybe again the next day. For example, the walls would be black from where the fire was. So go back, show them, talk about it. Go together to the hardware store to buy a fire extinguisher. Get yourself prepared. “Mommy didn’t have a fire extinguisher, so we had to use the shower. But next time if there is a fire, we know to use the extinguisher. Let’s have a look at the instructions so that we know exactly what to do next time.”

This way you are teaching your child that is okay to panic. You got scared, you cried, you screamed. But next time, you are going to be better prepared.

This is not only for a fire situation but also for any stressful situation; altercations with friends or family, sporting events, debating events, concerts, anything where there is anxiety involved. Preparation is the key to all success. When preparation meets opportunity, we get success. And it is our job as parents to be prepared for these situations and to teach our children how to prepare themselves.

I urge you to prepare yourselves. Have whatever you need! Have the emergency medication, have the fire extinguisher, have the emergency numbers ready. But if it happens, it happens. That is life! We want to protect and shield our children from all of these situations but unfortunately, that’s just not how it works.

If you find yourself in a highly stressful situation, talk your child through the situation, dropping in emotional language and using rich vocabulary so that they can then also know to express themselves in the future. Remember the way that you speak to your child and the way that you communicate with them, ultimately becomes the way that they’re going to speak to you and communicate with you.