Helping children to process difficult experiences

Just like adults, children who have experienced something difficult may continue to feel unwell for some time afterwards. A child need not have suffered trauma themselves. Witnessing someone else be hurt can be enough. In such a situation, the daily support of adults is often important for recovery.

Like adults, children can experience grief, crisis or anxiety for many reasons. Such reasons may include illness or death in the child's family or that the child has fled war, been neglected by a parent or experienced violence or abuse.

Children react differently to difficult events. Age also plays a role. In older children, the symptoms may resemble those of an adult who experiences a traumatic event, e.g., difficulty sleeping, nightmares, feelings of distance and disappearing into a bubble of their own.

Signs that something’s wrong

A younger child may suddenly begin behaving younger than their age, for example, seeking greater amounts of attention or wetting themselves despite potty-training. The child may become less interested in playing or other things that interested him/her before.

Remember that children experience different reactions regarding which notions of right and wrong do not apply. It may be hard to notice a difference in a child, despite knowing that they've experienced something difficult.

Adults who are aware that a child has experienced something difficult, or who suspect this may be the case, should try to create a calm and safe environment around the child. Don't be afraid to speak with a child who is feeling unwell, for fear of making a mistake. The most important thing is to demonstrate that you are there and listening. Turn off your phone, TV or any other distractions while talking to your child about what happened. Even if the child isn't ready to talk immediately, they will know that you are present.

Whatever the child tells you, try to remain as calm and neutral as possible.

Helping the child cope

You can also help the child find his or her own way of processing what has happened. This may involve brainstorming activities to help ease their grief or anxiety for a while, or to maintain routines and help life return to normal. If thoughts and feelings that arise make the child anxious, it can be helpful to explain that thoughts and feelings are not dangerous and are only temporary.

If you experience that a child is expressing hopelessness or a desire to end his or her life, it is very important that you seek help through the health care system. In the first instance, call your health centre or contact 1177. In case of immediate risk to life, call 112. An initial contact with the school health service or school counsellor may be another good way to go.

Professional help may also be needed if you feel the child is depressed, has anxiety or is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Consider explaining to slightly older children that you wish to seek help for them and why, so that they feel involved.

Talking about difficult subjects

Listening patiently is among the most difficult challenges, especially when a child or someone else we love is relating a problem. Here are some tips for speaking with children of all ages (and indeed even adults):

  • If you panic while the child is speaking, try not to show it. Remain as calm as possible. Focus on breathing evenly and continue listening.
  • Don't try to explain away the child's story, minimise the problem or find 'reasonable' causes for what happened. This applies even if you believe the child has misunderstood or is exaggerating.
  • If you can think of solutions or have suggestions about what you or the child should do, wait before sharing. It is more respectful - and often more constructive - to hear to child's own suggestions and thoughts first, even if it takes time.
  • Repeat what the child has said to show that you heard and understood it correctly.
  • If the child reacts to your misunderstanding with frustration, then apologise and ask them to explain again.
  • It's okay to respond, for example:
    • "Did you mean [your understanding of what the child said]? How does it feel when you think about it?"
    • "That sounds like something that’s hard to think about. "
    • "Is there anything that you or I can do to make it better?"
    • "What should we do now?"
    • Listen carefully to any answers you receive. There may be no answers at the moment. But even without solving the problem, you've made a difference just by listening and showing that you understand what's troubling the child.