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Talking to Kids About Trauma

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This weekend's shooting in the food court of the Toronto Eaton Centre has many children frightened for their safety. It also has parents wondering what best to do to ease their child's fears. Here are my five points for building your approach:

1. Filter and Process Information

Use your own adult wisdom to properly screen the traumatic information coming to your child to ensure it's age appropriate. I suggest that for all but the most mature children, you simply turn off the radio and TV. Even if you think your toddler doesn't understand what is being said on the TV, the visual images are frightening. You can get information on the event yourself later by reading about it online, or by watching the news after the kids go to bed. Discussions are less likely to incite fear and anxiety than a news report will.

Even with the TV off, children will be hearing about the news through social media. With kids going online at younger ages than ever before, you will have to be prepared to explain, discuss and help make sense of what they are hearing. Make your parental presence felt as that will create feelings of security.

2. Don't Lie

When discussing difficult matters, whether it is a random shooting, an abduction, an earthquake or someone's cancer diagnosis, it's important that you don't lie. A child will likely uncover a lie and feel betrayal, lack trust in you and they'll wonder what is wrong with them that their own parents didn't trust them enough to tell them the truth. Instead, using the screening of information to decide which truthful elements are age appropriate to share. For a young child, you may simply say "something tragic happened at a very big mall, and many people are upset because a person died and many many people were scared." For an older child, "There was a random shooting at a food court and someone was killed. A lot of people were there and so it caused a big public panic. A lot of people were hurt and traumatized."

3. Help Them Feel Safe

The bigger job is to help our children make sense of the random act of terror and restore a sense of calm security. Parents should reassure their children that Canada is one of the safest countries to live in, and that we have a very low crime rate. In fact, these types of random acts of violence are so rare that, statistically speaking, you're far more likely to encounter danger driving to the mall than to be shot at while eating in the food court. I've also told my kids that if they don't get involved in drugs and gangs, and if they pick a good life mate, they have just ruled out most of the reasons there are shootings. It's more likely you'd be hit by lightning than a stray bullet.

Lately, the news has been particularly gruesome (such as the case of Luka Rocco Magnotta) so this is also a good time to discuss media and how sensational stories capture more ratings than the more mundane "firefighter gets cat down from tree" type of story. If media were properly balanced, we would all see that humanity is largely full of safe, loving people who do good deeds for one another. That is the more accurate depiction of our society.

4. Your Attitude is Infectious

Your children observe your reactions as a barometer for knowing how they should be feeling about events. You cannot properly calm your child's fears if you are still worried yourself. Deliver your messages with a calm re-assurance and don't over-protect or helicopter parent.

5. Respond to Needs for Extra Cuddles

It is natural for a child to become extra clingy when they have experienced some extreme stressor or trauma. They might even act baby-like in order to invite extra nurturing. Be generous with your love and cuddles. Touch has a powerful ability to release a cascade of chemicals in the body that helps relieve stress. Just be sure you don't alter some basic limits and boundaries or feel pity. Pity sends the message "I don't believe you can manage" when in fact we want our children to know that we believe they can! That is a vote of confidence which builds their self-esteem and sense of security.

I hope these ideas help. Share your stories, ideas and resources in the comment section. Together we are better.