We’d love to share our latest podcast recorded by Dr Kimberley O’Brien for a local magazine with you. This weeks topic is helping children cope with bad news.
Quirky Kid has produced a full range of creative and engaging Therapeutic Tools.
[00:00:00-00:00:32] Dr. Kimberley O’Brien introduces strategies for parents to help kids cope with traumatic news.
Hello Bonnie. It’s Dr. Kimberley O’Brien here. I’m auto-recording in Japan, so I hope there won’t be any background distractions. I’ll talk for five minutes on strategies to help kids cope when they’ve seen a tragedy, or had some sort of unfortunate event. I’ll have some tips for parents as well – I’ll fill you in on that towards the end of the interview.
[00:00:33-00:02:27] Parents shouldn’t shield children from all forms of adversity. Instead, teach them coping strategies for stressful events, since those are an inevitable part of life.
The first thing you said was about helping kids to deal constructively with bad news, rather than sweeping it under the carpet. I agree that it’s a healthier approach, because it’s really setting them up for life. It’s giving them the skills to overcome adversity, without feeling like a parent is required to shield them from something that’s not appropriate for kids to hear.
From a young age kids are learning how to overcome physical injuries. Like toddlers grazing knees – they hop up and brush themselves off, and then life goes on. They can cope with those sorts of little incidents. And if we do shield the kids from all adversity, then they don’t learn the coping skills they need in certain situations, like if they are not good enough for a sports team, or if they’re excluded from a game at school. Teaching them coping skills is like teaching them life skills that help them to be more resilient. And it gives them confidence to be able to overcome issues moving forward. That’s part of healthy psychological development.
Imagine adults that haven’t learned to overcome adversity. They’re more likely to react negatively, perhaps need a lot more support, and need to take time off work if they haven’t learnt to cope with life’s issues that will come our way. That’s just part of life, isn’t it? Kids will have to change schools, or they may lose a pet or loved one. That stress is a part of living, so it’s something that kids need to learn to cope with.
[00:02:27-00:04:08] Encourage children to express their feelings in words, rather than through actions. Praise them for expressing themselves clearly, and empathise with them verbally. When something bad happens, let kids write down questions in a booklet, so you can answer those questions when you feel prepared to remain calm during the discussion. It’s a way to model good coping skills.
The best way to do this, for parents, is to prepare for question time if it’s something that’s happened for a young person, like the loss of a pet. Have a question booklet that kids can record some questions in. And then make sure you feel prepared emotionally to answer each one of those questions. When I say prepared emotionally, I mean that children often take their cues from their parents. If parents are very emotional, kids will often follow suit and become quite emotional. So being prepared to model good coping skills as a parent is important. Say “these things happen but we will get through it”. Use words to explain those feelings.
Sometimes kids will use actions or behaviour to express their emotions. For example, they may feel disappointed, or upset that they didn’t make the sports team, and they may throw their sports bag across the room. But what we want kids to do is to use their words, and say “I feel so disappointed, I’m so jealous that my best friend was selected and I wasn’t”. Parents should then use verbal praise to say “I’m so glad to hear you express yourself so clearly, now I understand how you feel”. Parents can empathise with young people: “I’ve felt that way before, this must be hard”. Empathising is also part of helping kids to express their feelings in words, rather than in actions.
[00:04:08-00:05:01] When it comes to family trauma, such as a separation or a tragedy, it’s better to get professional help because they can remain objective and provide the family with support.
Just a final point now, for parents on how to help kids through family separation. It’s good to encourage them to see a psychologist, such as someone at the Quirky Kid Clinic or a school counselor, to help them normalize those feelings. Often if parents are involved in situations, like if there’s been a tragedy or trauma within the family, it’s better to get professional help. A professional can remain objective and provide kids and parents with stats on how often these things occur, how long it may take kids to recover, and what the phases of grief and loss may be. It’s good to have an expert when dealing with family separation or similar situations.
[00:05:01-00:05:58] When a tragedy happens, stick to the basic facts when relaying the news to the child. Avoid delving into the causes, or exposing them to distressing images, to avoid more of an emotional response.
And finally, a tip about how to relay the news to a child. Say it was something that happened in the world, like a tsunami. We often get rising referrals when there’s been a trauma, like a tsunami, and kids have seen it on TV. It’s best to switch off the news when there’s lots of visual, distressing images for kids to catch. Parents have more control when they’re giving the news to the young person. Stick with the facts: what happened, how it happened, when it happened. Avoid going into the whys, because that’s often going to trigger more of an emotional response.
[00:05:58-00:06:50] Apart from verbally expressing themselves, it can also be useful for kids to use art or visual props to talk about how they felt before, during, and after an incident.
I’m going to wrap up now. To help kids deal and process emotions, help them to use their words to understand those feelings, or to seek help from a professional. Sometimes kids will express their feelings using art, so give them an opportunity to draw what happened. Or, they can select images, such as from our “Face It” cards, which are feelings cards with a whole bunch of different facial expressions. Children can use them to talk about what they felt before, during, and after an incident. Visual props can be very helpful.
Bonnie, it’s been a pleasure to answer your questions today, and I look forward to talking to you again in the future. I’m Dr. Kimberley O’Brien from the Quirky Kid Clinic. That’s www.quirkykid.com.au. And keep in touch. Thank you.