Talking to Traumatized Kids

This article is being published in our newsletter with permission from Barbara Day. You can visit her website at “”

How do you explain a tragedy to a child who has special needs?

Each of us is feeling the impact of what happened on September 11, 2001 in our own way. We are only now beginning to catch a glimpse of the horror that still has not been completely revealed. But, despite our shock and disbelief, we must take care of our children now.

“Young children may be disturbed by witnessing scenes of destruction on television or by listening in on adult conversations,” says Suzanne Smith-Sharp, a Parent Consultant/Advocate at The Center for Family & Infant Interaction in Denver, Colorado. Smith-Sharp adds that parents can expect come changes in behavior. “It may not be unusual if some young children react by being more clinging, seeming a bit more concerned, or having difficulty at bedtime,” she says.

The same is true for older children who are developmentally delayed, have emotional disorders, or who have other conditions that make it hard for them to come to grips with what has happened. Some children may react by acting out more; others may become more withdrawn.

Parents must consider the age and developmental level of their children as they deal with news reports of death and terror. “Although it might be important to allow older children to participate in viewing and talking about the news, it might be wise to limit young children’s exposure to TV news,” said Smith-Sharp. Again, children with developmental delays can be expected to react differently than their near-age siblings.

Dr. Steven Richfield is a child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA. He reminds parents that they should talk with their children in terms that he or she can understand. “As a general rule, elementary-aged kids perceive life in narrower terms, preferring to focus on the immediate moments rather than the past or future. Thus the youngsters will have less need to talk and ask questions,” explains Dr. Richfield. “In contrast, middle schoolers and older teens are likely to pursue a deeper understanding of the meanings and implications since their cognitive abilities thirst for answers to such horrific acts of violence.”

Talk to your kids. Listen to what they are saying – and to what they do not say. “A normally anxious and reflective 8 year old may need to process these events with parents more thoroughly than a detached and emotionally flat adolescent,” says Dr. Richfield.

Each of us, regardless of age, diagnosis or IQ, will have to deal with our own reaction to the tragedy. But it is the children who will especially need to find ways to see and believe that all life has meaning, even now when it seems that life is so insignificant to those responsible for the tragedy.

Finally, never, never underestimate the power of hearing words like “No matter what ever happens–I’ll be there for you,” and other reassurances.

And if you can’t think of anything else to say, never underestimate the power of simply saying “I love you.”

Hope all is well with your loved ones…