16 Apr 2024

How to talk to children about traumatic events

7:01 pm on 16 April 2024
sad son hugging his mother

Photo: 123RF

It is important that children understand feeling upset, shocked or angry is an acceptable response to a traumatic event, an expert says.

It comes in the wake of a brutal stabbing attack in a busy Sydney shopping mall where six people were killed and at least 12 others injured.

The attack occurred on Saturday when many parents would have been shopping with their children.

Ashlee Good and her nine-month-old baby were brutally stabbed in the attack. Good died of her injuries in hospital, while her daughter remains in a serious but stable condition.

Footage also emerged of a father with his arms firmly around his children, guiding them from the shopping centre with masks covering their eyes.

But how do parents approach such a traumatic event with their children who may have witnessed it or heard about it later?

Canterbury-based clinical psychologist Catherine Gallagher spoke to RNZ to give some tips.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (C) stands with New South Wales Premier Chris Minns (4th R) and other officials as they prepare to leave flowers outside the Westfield Bondi Junction shopping mall in Sydney on April 14, 2024, the day after a 40-year-old knifeman with mental illness roamed the packed shopping centre killing six people and seriously wounding a dozen others. (Photo by DAVID GRAY / AFP)

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (C) stands with New South Wales Premier Chris Minns (4th R) and other officials as they prepare to leave flowers outside the Westfield Bondi Junction shopping mall in Sydney on 14 April 2024. Photo: AFP/David Gray

How do we deal with our children's concerns?

Gallagher said there was no one size fits all approach.

"Your child knows you and needs you to be you, and probably needs you to be in the best shape you can be."

If the parent was really upset or frightened by the event, it was best they took some time to take stock of the situation and calm down themselves before approaching the topic with their child, she said.

That did not mean the parent acted as if everything was fine, as it was important the child saw it was okay to get upset, shocked or angry about things.

"But if you can, it's about giving them a dose of that [upset that] they can tolerate and that's not going to overwhelm them."

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Clinical psychologist Catherine Gallagher. Photo: Supplied

Gallagher said it was also okay for parents to not have the answers to their child's questions straight away - and take time to find an appropriate answer.

But it was important to validate the child's feelings and tell them however they were feeling was okay.

"You might say that grown-ups make dangerous and scary decisions and here's someone who's actually been really unsafe and it's really hurt people and this is really scary. You don't want to pretend it's all fine."

What if my child's anxious about going to a similar place a traumatic event happened at?

With regard to the Sydney stabbing attack, Gallagher said it was possible young people might fear going to any mall or public place where such an event might occur.

She said the brain had an alarm system, and when traumatic events occur, the alarm system can get stuck on high alert.

"It means that places that are probably okay, and in fact generally okay, become flagged in our brains and bodies as being dangerous.

"If we keep ignoring those places or staying away from those places, it kind of reinforces the message to the brain that, 'yeah, you were right. This was dangerous'."

Gallagher said it was important to give young people time to stay away from such places if they needed to, but it was important to retrain the brain to know these places, for the most part, were safe to go to.

How specific in detail should we be when talking to our kids?

Gallagher said it depended on the child. If they came to their parent with specific questions, the parent probably wanted to be specific in their answers.

But it also depended on the child's developmental stage.

If they were younger, details might be kept vague and the parent could reinforce the fact that although this traumatic event happened, the child was safe.

If the child was a bit older, Gallagher said the parent might want to add a bit more context, keeping in mind the child might be accessing information on their own through social media.

Should we limit the amount of news our child consumes about the event?

Limiting the information children consumed was not always possible, Gallagher said.

But if the parent could control it, "absolutely do".

One way to manage this was to tell the child they were not to watch the news about the event but the parent would tell them what they needed to know about it after.

If the child was watching, Gallagher suggested the parent sitting down with them after and asking how it made them felt. If it contributed to their anxiety and fear, a decision needed to be made on whether or not they would be able to watch more going forward.

Will a traumatic event bring up a child's past trauma?

Gallagher said this was very possible.

The brain had a long memory and if a child had previous experiences of being in danger, such an event would bring that front of mind, she said.

"If we have had scary experiences before, our brain goes 'oh, that feeling or that thought or that experience feels familiar' and it'll dredge up stuff that relates to a similar kind of feeling or thought or belief.

"And if that happens to be a trauma belief, especially one that might not have been processed or organised, then that can be quite a scary experience, because what it might do is trigger some pretty out of control feelings."

In that instance, Gallagher said it was important a parent sought extra support for their child in order to deal with those feelings.

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: free counselling for 5 to 19 years old, online chat 11am-10.30pm 7days/week or free phone 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 11am-11pm Asian Family Services: 0800 862 342 Monday to Friday 9am to 8pm or text 832 Monday to Friday 9am - 5pm. Languages spoken: Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and English.

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

OUTLine: 0800 688 5463 (6pm-9pm)

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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