Kids feel differently and deeply, which is why parents should know how to speak to them about traumatic events. Two experts share an easy guide on how to navigate this sensitive topic.
Last month’s River Valley High School incident zoomed in on not only the looming mental health issues of Singaporean youths, but also on how kids deal with trauma. Nobody understands this more than Shamini Ras and Michelle Koay, school counsellors at St. Joseph’s Institution International (SJII). With over a decade of experience under their belts, Shamini has been the “worries teacher” for the elementary students at SJII, while Michelle helps high schoolers navigate their emotions, and develop self-awareness, resilience and relational skills. Here, they share tips on how to navigate this fragile space and teach parents to prevent trauma from reverberating throughout a family.
It’s never an easy topic to discuss…
Shamini: Children experience traumatic stress when exposed to events or situations that overwhelm their ability to cope. How the child experiences traumatic events and expresses their distress depends largely on the child’s age and development.
As adults, when we experience traumatic events, it shakes our sense of security and belonging. Imagine how this may feel for young children. Coupled with their inability to express how they feel accurately, this may pose a barrier to starting meaningful conversations.
Michelle: Adults are not typically the first people teens turn to when they are having a difficult time — teens usually turn to their peers and friends. Unfortunately, teens may not feel very well-supported no matter who they choose to speak to because most people do not know how to respond. People respond to trauma differently, which means we may not fully understand or empathise with the experience, and may not be able to provide the support needed.
If we are experiencing some of the pain as well, we may need to acknowledge our own emotions. If we feel too overwhelmed ourselves, we will not be the most suitable person to talk to teens about the trauma. It may be better for someone who is unable to sit with the uncomfortable feelings and co-regulate with the teens as we process the experience.
…but is it better to talk about it sooner, rather than later?
Shamini: Whether or not an adult talks to a young child about trauma and when is dependent on many factors. These may include (but are not limited to): age, maturity levels, personal comfort levels as well as the type of trauma that has occurred. If parents are unsure of when to talk about issues, they should always seek the expertise of a professional.
Michelle: Many schools believe that they have to identify the people who a traumatic incident has impacted and have them go through structured programmes to process and talk about their experiences as soon as it happens. However, this is not always the best approach and may sometimes cause more harm than good (Maddox, 2017). It is also not advisable to leave them completely by themselves because they may tend to isolate themselves after a traumatic incident. Instead, we can encourage them to reach out to people they feel comfortable with, without the pressure of talking about their feelings, and just being with people they trust.
If they wish to talk and share, they should go ahead, but they should not feel compelled to do so. Suppose they experience strong feelings and physiological reactions in the early phase. In that case, it is important to normalise these experiences and find constructive and positive ways to soothe them and seek comfort. After a few weeks, if the distressing symptoms do not subside, they should speak to a mental health professional about it.
Is it possible to be honest without going into too much detail?
Shamini: The first step to tackling this issue is always to listen to what your child knows. Empathic and active listening are powerful tools and will give you a sense of what your child may be comfortable with. Using this as a gauge, parents can then have conversations with their children. Correcting misperceptions will be key at this point of time and childrens’ reactions should be taken seriously. When providing information about a specific event, parents should be brief and reassuring. It is also okay for a parent to say “I don’t know” when asked. The important overarching idea is for parents not to speculate or add on to the rumours that children may have heard.
Michelle: Teens are likely to know a lot more than parents as their peers may be sharing information, images and videos online and on social media, and teens can easily access this information. Parents can have a conversation with their teen about what they access online and discuss the steps their teen can take to filter information and content that they may not be comfortable with for the sake of their mental and emotional well-being.
How can parents tell if their child’s response is healthy or not?
Shamini: This is a tough question to answer. All children respond differently. Children may present some or a combination of the following, which may be deemed as healthy reactions:
- Worries about individual and friend’s safety
- Fear over some places
- Rational concerns
- Questions regarding the traumatic incident and the willingness to have conversations
What may make a response healthy would be the dissipation of these concerns when validation, reassurance and empathy are provided by significant adult/s in their lives.
Michelle: In the beginning, strong emotional reactions are going to be completely normal. If they cry a lot, express anger, have nightmares, do not sleep well, or have a poor appetite, these are all normal reactions. It is unhealthy if these persist for several weeks without subsiding or maybe become worse. Some problematic signs will be extended absenteeism from school, isolation from friends and family, severe loss of weight, substance abuse, depression and suicide ideation.
For some teens, they may seem emotionally numb and act as if they are completely fine. They may tend to work harder and harder to avoid difficult emotions. You will know that something is not quite right when they start to neglect their well-being and not take care of themselves.
What are the tell-tale signs/symptoms of traumatic stress in kids?
Shamini: Here are some tell-tale signs that children may exhibit if they are distressed about a traumatic event:
- Complaints about physical discomfort such as stomachaches, headaches and lethargy
- Changes in sleep patterns and appetite
- Refusal to attend school
- Behavioural changes such as increases in the level of aggression
- Panic and anxiety, especially regarding the future and over the death of close ones
- Withdrawal from social situations
- Refusing to discuss the event even though it is evident that they know about it
Michelle: Absenteeism from school, anxiety, paranoia, nightmares, depression, loss of appetite, insomnia, loss of interest in things that they enjoy, increased self-harm and suicide ideation, substance abuse, emotional numbness, overworking, social isolation, psychosomatic symptoms – these are all tell-tale signs/symptoms of traumatic stress.
Student well-being at SJII
According to Shamini, the SJII students themselves say that the school is their safe place. Within the elementary school, well-being is at the forefront of everything that the school does, embedded within the school’s philosophy. There are weekly themed well-being lessons for children and additional regular training sessions with teachers on dealing with children asking questions related to trauma.
Through well-being, students thrive and do well in school, giving them the emotional ability to interact with others with compassion and kindness and to be of service to the community. “It takes a village to raise a child – our school also engages the parents regularly so that we can work together as a community to take care of one another,” shares Michelle.
If you’re looking for a school with a great well-being program, visit SJII’s website to book a school tour.
This post is in partnership with SJII