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Helping Children Process Scary Events


Jeanette Yoffe M.A. M.F.T.


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Author of Groundbreaking Interventions: Working with Traumatized Children, Teens and Families in Foster Care and Adoption and What s Your Name, Who s Your Daddy? a one woman play about growing up in foster care and adoption available on Amazon and Audible. She has appeared on the OWN and TLC Network, as a Psychotherapist teaching about Adoption in the shows Raising Whitley and Long Lost Family.

Definition of Scary: striking, surprising and causing fear.


It is wise for parents to understand that children are resilient and will be able to overcome scary events. Children become traumatized when a parent is absent and unacknowledging of an overwhelming experience.  What mitigates trauma for a child, is having a kind, gentle, nurturing parent who is able to listen and join with their child’s scary experience to help them process what happened. This is how we learn to tolerate experiences and move through them. 


It is normal for a child to have acute stress symptoms after witnessing and experiencing a scary event such as disorganized speech, startle responses to loud noises and fast movements, difficulty sleeping, easily agitated or tearful, nervousness, and hypervigilance- a constant scanning of their environment to seek safety. 

There is no age that is too early to check in with children about exposure to violence or traumatic events.



How to Be a Therapeutic Parent” to your child during times of stress:


1.    Calm your own neuro-physiological reaction and breathe, slow down and be patient with yourself.


2.    Combat your anxious thoughts with compassion. Reframe your experience by building your inner strength with affirmations such as:
“You got this. You will grow stronger working through this together. You can feel scared too. You will be ok and your child will be alright.” “Even though this is overwhelming, you can still have love and compassion for yourself.”


3.    Be an OWL to your child: Observe Watch and Listen, pay attention to your child’s non-verbal cues for signs of stress:  “Confused kids will do confusing things.”: eye contact, face twitching, clenched sweaty hands, disorganized speech or movement, posture and tone of voice.   


4.    Talking about a Shooting with a young child: 

1. Instead of telling a very young child (under 5) that someone was “shot” or “killed,” you can simply say some people were “hurt.” 


2. Ask open ended questions. Be curious about what they know or have seen and/or heard and what they told themselves about what they saw? What was their interpretation and meaning?

“What did you see or hear?”
“How did you feel about what we saw on the news? 
“What did it make you think about?” 

If you don’t have an answer create a Question Box to hold the questions that are hard to answer. 


3. Empathize their feelings and validate their concerns

Empathize: “I understand this feels scary. It’s ok to feel scared about this.”

Validate:  “It is scary. Let’s talk about it.” 

4.    Reassure them they are safe and Limit exposure to news. Kids feel better when they know how a situation is being handled, so explain to them what adults are doing to keep things safe.
“You are safe here at home. Because of this there are a lot of helpers keeping us safe.”

“We have a lot of love and helpers around us keeping us safe.”

5. Provide coping skills for externalizing feelings. Create a Sad Bag, Stress Bag, Worry Box, Question Box, Feel Good Plan to mitigate acute stress symptoms. 

6. Provide Sensory Comfort via the senses, soft touch, soft sound, soft lights, comforting smells and tastes.

7. Keep your Routine. After you’ve given them plenty of time to formulate their questions, express their feelings, it’s important to go back to your regular routine. Routine is deeply comforting for children.

8. Allow retelling of the “scary story” which is part of recycling the information and make sense of what happened. This is something that’s going to keep coming up, so be sure to let your kids know that you’re there for them whenever they need to talk — and keep checking in proactively, too. 


·       Sometimes people do bad things that hurt others. They may be unable to handle their anger, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or suffering from mental illness. It is important for all of us to know how to get help if we feel really upset or angry and to stay away from drugs and alcohol.

·       Stay away from guns and other weapons. Tell an adult if you know someone has a gun. Access to guns is one of the leading risk factors for deadly violence.

·       Violence is never a solution to personal problems. A solution is focusing on being part of the solution by participating in anti-violence programs at school or community, learning conflict mediation skills, and seeking help from an adult if a peer or person is struggling with anger, depression, or other emotions they cannot control.

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