Helping Your Children Cope with Societal Trauma

Children should be safe. Their primary jobs include playing and learning, sometimes in very tough environments. A news story of a missing boy or girl makes hearts beat faster with worry. Tragic accidents or intentional cruelty instinctively brings sorrowful or angry emotions to the surface for most of us. At times, however, what happens in view of our children inflicts a hidden trauma, one that can shape their life experiences and determine who they are for years to come. The events of 2020 qualify for both obvious and hidden types of trauma. With citizens in many countries divided on important issues and a pandemic continuing, you may be wondering how you can help your children cope.

Discussing these events and what they mean may be difficult. At all times, reassure your children that you love them and will do everything you can to protect them. Just as you did weeks ago to prepare them for changing conditions related to the pandemic, find out what recommendations exist for reopening plans in your area, including the evolving options for school settings a few months from now. Let them know the situation is still uncertain but that medical professionals are working to bring people through this time safely. Make every effort to provide safe fun and learning experiences. 

Changes may continue in other ways. Employment, household circumstances, and social activities may be different for a while. Build resiliency by being honest with your children (in age-appropriate ways) and by letting your own attitude model cooperation and respect. Get help for yourself if you are overwhelmed and help for your children if they need extra support.

Political issues, protests, violence on television and in the neighborhood are not easy for adults to understand and agree on, but do not ignore these issues. They are affecting your children whether that effect is obvious or not. Banning screens is not always appropriate but extensive coverage of events that repeat all day long can have a harmful effect, causing fear and trauma for both you and your children. 

Depending on the ages of your children, choose times to watch certain news segments or programs with them, ways to keep up with what’s happening on your own, and times for discussions about what is happening and how it will affect them and their friends. Listen to their thoughts and ask questions that will guide them in viewing events as part of history and as personal news for you and your family as well as society at large.

Conversations are good times to share what you believe about living and working with others but keep these interactions short and calm. Avoid generalizations and sensationalism. You may want older children to study related history or research the men and women who held important roles in history. Role playing different ways to handle situations they might encounter in real life can be helpful. Apps and online programs from SESAME STREET and other child-oriented media are created by professionals in child development and psychology, with special emphasis on helping parents navigate difficult issues.

If you hear your children say something discriminatory, it is not enough to tell them not to say things like that. Find out if they know the meaning of what they said, where they heard it, and if they (and you) really agree with the meaning. 

Patiently explain to your children some of the ways people disagree and how working things out can be scary sometimes. It can be upsetting to children when they think no one is in control. In their behavior and speech, they may seek to exert control themselves. If they begin having nightmares or unusual changes in behavior, talk with them to find out what is bothering them. 

Younger children might not be able to put their fears into words. Books and games can help for this age group. PBS KIDS’ Facebook page hosts Mondays with Michelle Obama on Mondays at 12 pm EST, where you and your preschool age children can listen as the former first lady reads classic and newer stories. Preschoolers are deeply interested in the process of making friends, so this is a good age to introduce books about friendship and how we all relate to each other, alike and different. 

Stay with a routine that makes sense for your family. Calming activities together before bedtime and, perhaps, a sleepy bedtime snack and cuddle reinforce your words of confidence and safety. Children pick up on more than we realize, and they are watching to see what you really believe. If you are truly in a situation where safety is not assured, do your best to let your children know there are others who will help. You — and they — are not alone. 

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