Updated: Aug 4, 2019
Last weekend, the unthinkable happened… my family experienced a fire in our home. Power-lines sparked, lighting a row of 7 cypress trees on fire in our backyard. A healthy wind kicked up, sending embers across the yard, catching our grass, deck, and patio furniture on fire. We weren’t home, thank goodness, but we were called by neighbors who urged us to come home right away. When we arrived, ash peppered our front yard, and the air was thick with the smell of smoke and that too familiar “forest fire” smell. Other than some minor roof damage and broken windows, our home survived the inferno, but only just barely per the firefighter’s report. We were lucky…. Despite our luck, this event was still jarring to our 5-year-old daughter who had been fearing a fire in our home for some time. Her worst fears had been realized.
As parents, we work hard to try and prepare our children for natural disasters or other traumatic events. Deep down inside, however, you never believe it’s going to happen to you. What do you do when your worst fears have come to life and you are left to pick up the pieces? How do manage the emotional roller-coaster that you AND your child are sure to go through? How do you parent through trauma?
As a Marriage and Family Therapist, working with young children and traumatic events is no mystery to me, and now, I have personal experience on how to help you manage these murky waters. Today on the blog, we’ll be discussing 3 key points to remember as you help your child process a traumatic experience.
1. Model to your kids how you want them to act.
Something that I have written frequently about in previous blogs is the importance of modeling to your children the behavior you want to see in them. Oftentimes, we forget that children are not “mini” adults, but rather are growing, developing creatures. As parents, we are raising human beings, and in that comes the need to teach them how to act and interact with the world around them. Children take their cues from the significant adults in their lives on everything they do especially in emergency situations and during traumatic events. If you begin to panic, I guarantee, so will they. If you manage the situation with a calm and collected attitude, they will experience less anxiety over the situation, and will most likely model a similar attitude. You, as the parent, are one of your greatest tools when it comes to parenting your child through disaster experiences.
2. Allow your children to talk about the event… over and over again. Don’t discount their emotional experience!
How your child will process a traumatic event will largely depend on their age and developmental level. The important tip I want you to remember here is to offer your child the space, time, and opportunity to process the event in whatever way is best for them, without judgment from you or other family members. Verbal children will most likely choose to talk about it… over and over and over again. Let them! The conversation may be redundant, boring, or even triggering for you, but rehashing the story allows the child to work through their own emotions about the event and catalogue it in their mind.
Other children may internalize their emotional experience. Although this isn’t necessarily bad, it can lead to symptoms of anxiety, depression, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If this is your kiddo, offer alternative forms of self-expression, such as art, music, dance, etc. Young children may want to “play” it out using dolls, stuffed animals, or other toys to replay the experience. Although most parents may not mind their child playing “firefighter” with their dolls, watching your child play out a sexual molestation, however, can be very upsetting for parents, and may cause you to want to “end” that play session. Don’t! As much as it can be disturbing to witness, allowing your child to play out the trauma is therapeutic, even if it doesn’t seem like it. Putting an end to the play actually sends a troubling message to your child… “I’m bad” or “My feelings are bad.” Let’s unpack that a little further….
Big traumatic events, such as a fire in your home, have most likely affected YOU too! As such, we, as the adults in the situation, are also trying to process the experience. We are dealing with our own emotions about what occurred. As such, you might find that, as your child is working to process the trauma, their re-tellings or enactments may rub you the wrong way, serving as a reminder of something you'd rather forget. The natural reaction might be to change the subject of conversation or suggest other themes/ideas of play for your child. Try to avoid doing this because these behaviors send a subtle, unspoken message that event is a "taboo." Let's look at an example.
Let's say every time you try to talk about your household finances with your spouse, they change the subject or tell you “not to worry about it.” Eventually, you will begin to become suspicious that your spouse is hiding something, or something is wrong. This increases your anxiety, makes you worry about what is happening, and can even make you begin questioning your spouse’s honesty with you, as well as your relationship together. This same process occurs with your child too. Repeatedly shutting down their attempts to talk/deal with the trauma can cause your child to feel more anxiety surrounding the event, which will cause their mental thoughts to begin making negative associations between themselves and the trauma. Over time, this can develop into chronic mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.
3. Maintain structure and routine as best as possible.
After a disaster experience, life seems as though it gets turned upside down on its head. Any semblance of routine and structure goes out the window. Typically, you have a ton of things on your plate to tackle, such as calling insurance companies, reaching out to family members, or making arrangements for the death of a loved one. No matter the traumatic event, there are suddenly 100s of tasks that need completion, and this digs into your busy life, pulling time away from other really important tasks.