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I received an email last week from a mother who is a survivor of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. She described to me how one week after the attacks she’d learned she was pregnant. “Fast forward nine years,” she wrote. “I want to know how and when to tell my son what I went through.”
This mother is hardly alone: Many parents worry about how to explain painful or disturbing experiences to their kids. So here are eight rules for talking to kids about trauma.
Rule 4: Tell your story calmly. If you talk to your child about traumatic experiences in a highly emotional way, then he will likely absorb your emotion and very little else. If, on the other hand, you remain calm, he is likely to grasp what’s important: that what happens in the world can upset our lives, even deeply, but we can learn from bad experiences and work together to recover and even grow stronger. A child who lives with a distressed parent often learns to be apprehensive. A child who lives with a resilient parent tends to show confidence and faith in the face of adversity.
By clicking on the the website Child Mind Institute, you can read all 8 rules discussing how to talk to your children about life after trauma. From my own experience as a military child, I picked Rule#4 as the most important reminder for me based on my memory at age 10 in our post WWII and Korean War home.
There was never anything about our home that felt secure, safe, and calm. From my memory, the Sparks household was highly emotional and overwhelming. Each day for the most part included crises. Loud voices prevailed non-stop, especially when Dad, our resident “Chief Boatswain Mate” was home from his work at the US Naval Training Center in Great Lakes, Illinois. As a result of the highly emotional, intense. and scary circumstances of our home, there were not very many discussions we could absorb in a positive and constructive way, except when the early years of the Walt Disney program was on TV. We were never able to discover why our parents were so angry and depressed most of the time because they were rarely calm about anything. There were times when Dad would briefly and in a angry loud voice discuss his complaint…”I fought two wars and no one cares.” We would immediately march out of the living room to our own bedroom or go outside to play. We were never able to understand what he was talking about. In fact, the angry mood and outrage scared us away. My mother would also become upset with the conversation and suggest they should not talk about it because it was too painful and not really a concern to us siblings.
My recommendation is for parents to receive professional help before they talk to their kids about trauma so that they learn to engage with children in a calm and constructive manner. The worst thing parents can do is start talking to the kids about the subject of coping and living with PTSD when emotionally challenged. It may be helpful to use a trusted family member or friend to help with the conversation at the appropriate time and place. Often making this happen is difficult because families living and coping with life after trauma find themselves isolated and demonstrate dissociative behaviors. When friends or family do come around, it provides a distraction from the pain and denial sets in. There is also a risk of alcohol use, which often exacerbates the problem.
Creating a calm atmosphere in the home to discuss the challenges of life after trauma is at best difficult. We parents must be aware of how our kids respond to sensitive discussions before we attempt to communicate with them with the goal of healing as a family. Once we understand the game plan, and get professional help with preparation, we can then begin taking baby steps in discussing the topic of trauma and how the entire family can work together as a team to heal… Do not try to wing it! The reality of those years during my childhood is that my Mom & Dad would have never considered professional help…”that’s for crazy people,” they would say… I hope the reception for mental health treatment is more favorable to parents in the 21st Century… Don’t let the kids fend for themselves. They will certainly carry the baggage forward as adults…