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Witnessing Traumatic Events

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

Thanks for all the wonderful comments about my recent interview on CNN with Vinnie Politan. If you missed it, the topic was talking to children who may have witnessed a traumatic event. Unfortunately, as you are well aware, there are numerous tragic and traumatic events which occur across our country (and around the world) and at times, children may be witnesses to these events.  With that being said, how do you discuss these tragedies with a child?

Here’s one example: the tragic death of an acrobatic airplane pilot at the Kansas City air show last week. Many, including children of all ages, viewed this event.  I think the most important thing to remember when talking to a child about a trauma or tragedy is to use words that are appropriate for the child’s age and vocabulary and to acknowledge your own feelings as well.  They need to know that you too were scared, sad, upset or anxious about the event. Ask them how they felt and listen to the words that they use as you may use those words again when talking to your child.

While every child is different you can often follow their cues as to how much and how detailed a discussion to have, and when and how to bring the topic up again. Some children are talkers and want to discuss things at length, while others may be quieter and take some time to absorb the information. Don’t force the discussion.  A parent knows their children and the discussion may/will be different for each child and will be further impacted by their ages.

For young children, it is also important to let them know that “Mommy and Daddy” are there and will take care of them and protect them, but at the same time bad things sometimes happen. That is why parents take precautions and are responsible (like holding hands when crossing the street, or wearing a helmet etc).But, if something does happen it is so important to validate your child’s feelings while at the same time teaching your child coping skills and resilience.

If your child does view a traumatic event it is not unusual for them go through a period when they are afraid of separation, or have nightmares etc. They sometimes develop somatic complaints like tummy aches, headaches, and non specific complaints of “I just don’t feel well”. This is normal, but you should watch for a child who seems to “be stuck” with symptoms long after the event. In some cases a professional therapist may be helpful.

Lastly, don’t let them revisit the event. By that I mean keep the TV off for awhile, and monitor the internet so they are not watching constant images of the same event (like the falling of the twin towers on 9/11). With so many amateur videos of traumatic events being shown “on screen” 24/7 if your child sees these images over and over, it is as if they are reliving the experience each time.  It sometimes may feel as if we become addicted to watching it.  It was nice “in the olden days” when there were not constant images on screen to remind us of a picture that often fades in our own minds.

That’s your daily dose for today. We’ll chat again tomorrow.

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One Response to “Witnessing Traumatic Events”

  1. Mary O'neil says:

    a week ago my 3sons, husband and mother went into NYC for the day and in front of FAO schwarz my mother was having what we thought was a stroke, seziure or a heartatack, we didn’t know but all 3boys were there, I was screaming for help and my husband was trying to get the boys away from seeing it all so closely, but it was quite a scene! there were police ambulance and a crowd of people surrounding us trying to help. I left with my mom in the ambulance and the boyd went with my husband 3 subways and a train later to get to the car. It was a terrible day! it probably didn’t help that I was screaming and panicked, my husband and I really thought she had died! they still don’t know what happened, they kept her over night but then when she didn’t come home with us, rhett asked a lot of questions, now when she goes anywhere (she also lives with us) they seen to panic! they are 5,4 & 1 how do I explain such a scary thing?!

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