How to Talk to Your Child About Traumatic Events
When it comes to your child, there’s nothing you wouldn’t do to protect them from the darkest horrors of today’s world. But sometimes, the unthinkable happens. If your child has been exposed to physical, sexual or psychological abuse, there are steps you can take to help them move away from that emotional trauma and feel safe again. Here are some suggestions for how to talk to your child about traumatic events they may have experienced.
Before taking any action, it’s imperative to be in tune with your child’s emotions, reactions and behaviors. With children, very often they will “show” that something is wrong before telling. Are they exhibiting warning signs of abuse or neglect? Is he or she acting differently from their normal character? If so, how? Even the tiniest changes can help you get a better understanding of how your child is responding or coping with the events.
Look for changes in talkativeness. Is he or she using words or phrases that are “too adult” for their age? Is your normally colloquial child now exhibiting and unexplained silence, or suddenly being less talkative? These could be early indicators that something is wrong in their lives.
In many cases, the child may not realize something is wrong or inappropriate. Specifically, with victims of psychological or sexual abuse, it may take a third party being extra observant to help them realize that something is wrong.
Create a safe space
Whether you suspect your child is being abused, or you want to open up a conversation with a child who has been victimized in the past, creating a space where they feel safe and protected is an important step to vocalization and recovery. Choose a space where the child is comfortable or even ask them where they’d like to talk. Avoid talking in front of someone who may be causing the harm, and be extremely selective of who else, if anyone, is in the room with you.
For a child who is coping with the effects of child abuse, there are few things more important to their recovery that restoring safety. Abuse takes away a child’s sense of control over his or her surroundings and can lessen the faith that adults will protect them. Involve other adults to help create a safe, protected environment for the child (including cutting off any interaction with the person who conducted the abuse).
A great option for taking preventative measures against abuse is to create a family safety plan. Start these conversations when children are young, and work them into safety conversations you may already be having. There are multiple discussions you can have, but start with the basics.
Teach your child that it’s okay to say, “no” and give them examples of how to do so in a variety of situations. Parents Protect recommends that parents teach children the proper names for body parts and what to do if someone tries to touch them in a sexually or physically harmful way. These conversations are not easy to have with children, but they may make all the difference at some point down the road.
Whether the child is young, in their teens, or older, one thing remains the same: they can tell when you’re not listening to them. Children are instantly aware when they do not have your full attention.
In these delicate situations, if a child takes initiative to speak up and share something with you, it is crucial that you are open, supportive and allow them to speak. Give them your undivided attention, and let them know you take their concerns seriously. It may be your first instinct to try to jump in and take control of the situation, but listening will be the first step in building (or rebuilding) the trust that the child has been robbed of. Furthermore, the child may be more likely to come to you in the future if they know you will listen to them.
It is important to remember that it is not easy for children (or adults, for that matter) to talk about abuse. It may even be incredibly frightening for them, especially if their abuser threatened them about the repercussions of “telling.” The pressures on the child to keep silent are enormous. It takes tremendous courage to talk about abuse.
Research shows that one of the key factors in a child’s resilience and their ability to bounce back after stressful events is that he/she had someone to talk with and confide in (Parents Protect). Take it upon yourself to become a safe, responsible and consistent resource for a child who has experienced abuse.
Be aware of how you’re speaking
In any conversation with a child that has been a victim of abuse, your body language and tone of voice may be equally as important to what you’re actually saying in helping them. According to RAINN.org, “If you start the conversation in a serious tone, you may scare the child, and they may be more likely to give you the answers they think you want to hear—rather than the truth. Try to make the conversation more casual. A non-threatening tone will help put the child at ease and ultimately provide you with more accurate information.”
Furthermore, try to use terms and language that the child can understand (Provider-Parent Partnerships). If the child says something that you don’t understand, like a word for a body part, ask the child to explain or to point to the body part. When you use the same words as the child does, it helps the child feel less confused and more relaxed.
Avoid the notion of placing judgment or blame in your discussions by using “I” statements rather than “you” statements. “I’m worried because I overheard you say you were afraid to go to school” sounds better and is easier to answer than “You said this and it made me worry.” Approach the conversation openly and receptively; blame or shame are two of the worst emotions that can taint conversations with children who have experienced traumatic events.
You will undoubtedly have a lot of questions that you want answers to, but avoid “interviewing” your child, which can overwhelm and quiet him or her. If a child comes to you with something to say, allow them to talk freely, and ask questions when they’re done speaking. With younger children, make sure they know they are not in trouble. Let them know you are simply asking questions because you are concerned about them. And above all else, reassure them that you believe them.
As the conversation comes to a close, be sure to thank the child for sharing with you. Realize internally that discussions about abuse should be continuous, open lines of communication, and express that to the child by assuring them that they can come to you at any time.
After a child has experienced psychological, physical or sexual abuse, the child will look to you for cues that they will be okay (StopItNow.org). Abuse on any level can completely alter child’s view of the world.
That’s why it’s so important for you, as one of the stable, trusted protectors in their life to exhibit normalcy and steadiness. Regardless of how devastated you may be, it is up to you to be strong for them, and expect and believe that they will be okay. As is true for other severe traumatic events, with protection, support and specialized treatment, children can – and do – recover.
Understand that this will not be easy. When someone violates our sense of safety our child’s sense of safety, anger, outrage and/or grief are normal and appropriate responses. However, in sensitive scenarios, when your child is particularly delicate, you must be cautious of where and how you express these emotions.
The last thing you want is for the child to believe that they are the cause of the rage, turmoil and upset they see around them. For this same reason, remove threats from your vocabulary in these discussions. Involving violence or vengeance in these sensitive conversations may frighten the child further. Be cognizant of your behavior and dialogue at all times.
Going “back to normal” will be one the biggest challenges for any child or family affected by abuse. The “normal” you knew before may no longer exist. And that’s okay. Keeping an open line of communication between you and your child will be key during these challenging times.
Know that you are not alone
As with most traumatic events, one of the best ways to move forward with the recovery process is to find a community who can help support and nurture you. This is important for both your child (the victim) and you, your spouse, siblings or family members (other affected parties).
In the wake of abuse, it is a natural inclination to want to keep the event private or handle it on your own. But this can be a huge mistake, and potentially block your child from getting the help they need.
It’s okay to realize you cannot handle this on your own. That’s what the professionals, who can help guide you and your family towards safety and healing, are for. It’s also important to recognize that all family members are affected when a child has been abused and each one may need special help. Seeking the help of a professional will benefit your entire family, and give your child the best chance at recovery.
When you’re ready, consider spreading awareness
One of the best things that you can do in these situations is perpetuate your knowledge and talk with your friends, family and community. By taking action, you may reduce the risk that others in your family or community will be sexually abused.
The safety of your child is the most important thing in the world. By using the communication and support tips above, you’ll be able to ensure it.
For more information on child abuse resources, visit our website.