15 Dec Talking to Your Kids About Tragedies: Age Appropriate Guidelines
Many parents mistakenly assume they can shield their children from the tragedies that occur in the world around them. Unless they live in a hermetically sealed bubble, they cannot. Children, no matter what their age, are incredibly intuitive. They feel what’s going on- especially when what’s going on makes them feel threatened and unsafe.
For this reason, it’s important for parents to discuss tragedies with their children in age appropriate ways. How tragedies are explained to a 4 year old is markedly different from how they will be explained to an adolescent. To help you in this regard, I’ve copied guidelines from the government agency SAMHSA below. These guidelines explain what is appropriate and what is inappropriate to share with children of various ages.
PRESCHOOL CHILDREN, 0–5 YEARS OLD
Very young children may go back to thumb sucking or wetting the bed at night after a trauma. They may fear strangers, darkness, or monsters. It is fairly common for preschool children to become clingy with a parent, caregiver, or teacher or to want to stay in a place where they feel safe. They may express the trauma repeatedly in their play or tell exaggerated stories about what happened. Some children’s eating and sleeping habits may change. They also may have aches and pains that cannot be explained. Other symptoms to watch for are aggressive or withdrawn behavior, hyperactivity, speech difficulties, and disobedience.
Infants and Toddlers, 0–2 years old, cannot understand that a trauma is happening, but they know when their caregiver is upset. They may start to show the same emotions as
their caregivers, or they may act differently, like crying for no reason or withdrawing from people and not playing with their toys.
Children, 3–5 years old, can understand the effects of trauma. They may have trouble adjusting to change and loss. They may depend on the adults around them to help them feel better.
EARLY CHILDHOOD TO ADOLESCENCE, 6–19 YEARS OLD
Children and youth in these age ranges may have some of the same reactions to trauma as younger children. Often younger children want much more attention from parents or caregivers. They may stop doing their school work or chores at home. Some youth may feel helpless and guilty because they cannot take on adult roles as their family or the community responds to a trauma or disaster.
Children, 6–10 years old, may fear going to school and stop spending time with friends. They may have trouble paying attention and do poorly in school overall. Some may become aggressive for no clear reason. Or they may act younger than their age by asking to be fed or dressed by their parent or caregiver.
Youth and Adolescents, 11–19 years old, go through a lot of physical and emotional changes because of their developmental stage. So, it may be even harder for them to cope with trauma. Older teens may deny their reactions to themselves and their caregivers. They may respond with a routine “I’m ok” or even silence when they are upset. Or, they may complain about physical aches or pains because they cannot identify what is really bothering them emotionally. Some may start arguments at home and/or at school, resisting any structure or authority. They also may engage in risky behaviors such as using alcohol or drugs.