[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.
One of the ways in which children develop an ability to manage their emotions is by watching their parents and mimicking their coping strategies (Cole, 1994). Naturally children develop those emotional regulation skills gradually and parents need to consider suitable modeling strategies for the different developmental stages. A three-year-old, for example, may express anger by throwing a tantrum, while a five-year-old might be able to more clearly verbalise the source of the anger. Many children will, however, struggle to cope with the intensity a specific emotion. For some children, the development of emotional regulation does not come automatically and requires more focused input from parents.
All Emotions are Valid
There are no “bad” emotions. Children will experience a range of emotions everyday from mild to extreme ones. Help your child to understand those emotional changes, name them and explain how each emotion feels in their body. You can continue to explore what behaviour comes out of those emotions and if there may be a better way of expressing it. The Quirky Kid ‘Face It’ Cards are designed to increase emotional awareness.
To a child, the disappointment of missing out on a play date may be every bit as intense as what you would feel if, for example, you missed out on your best friend’s wedding. Allowing your child to experience, recognise and name that disappointment lets them know that you care about them and their feelings (Denham, 2012).
The same is true for anger. A child who is angry about a perceived unfairness – not being allowed to watch television, having to leave a birthday party, or being “mistreated” by a sibling, for example, needs your acknowledgement that their anger is legitimate. You aren’t denying them the emotion; you’re simply asking that they express it appropriately.
As the children develop, and with some assistance from their parents, this process is transferred from an external source (e.g., parents calming a crying child) to internal (e.g., children using language to calm themselves).
You can’t change what your child feels. In fact, your child needs to feel safe expressing a full range of emotions. You can, however, help shape the behaviour that occurs as a result of those emotions.
For example, a child who is prone to violence can have his anger validated while still knowing that hitting, kicking, or pinching are not acceptable. It often helps if you’re able to control your own behaviour. Yelling, smacking, or punishing harshly in an effort to get the undesirable behaviour under control will spark further negative emotions in the child, making it more difficult for them to get their behaviour under control.
On the other hand, modeling appropriate behaviour will help your child to learn how to control their own emotional responses. Show your child that sometimes, you need to take a moment to think things through or remove yourself from the situation. Modeling these behaviours will give your child a clear example of how they should act.
Share Your Own Feelings
Because children learn from your responses, they need to understand what has prompted those responses too. It can be very helpful for children to have their parents share how they feel and how they have behaved. This can help with not only validating how children feel but can also provide opportunities to discuss appropriate coping responses and develop a sense of understanding of the child’s situation. Participating in discussions about emotions gives children new tools for regulating their own expression of emotions.
Through modeling positive ways to cope with different emotions, a parent implicitly teaches children how best to express emotions and regulate them (Valiente, 2004).
Helping your child to manage their emotional responses can be a challenging part of parenting, however, it has immeasurable benefit for children as they grow up and learn to navigate the world and the world’s increasingly complex interactions.
Need a little extra help with that process? Contact us to see what we can do.
Cole, P. M., Michel, M. K., & Teti, L. O. D. (1994). The development of emotion regulation and dysregulation: A clinical perspective. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 59(2‐3), 73-102.
Denham, S. A., Bassett, H. H., & Zinsser, K. (2012). Early childhood teachers as socializers of young children’s emotional competence. Early Childhood Education Journal, 40(3), 137-143.
Valiente, C., Fabes, R. A., Eisenberg, N., & Spinrad, T. L. (2004).The relations of parental expressivity and support to children’s coping with daily stress. Journal of Family Psychology, 18, 97–106.
Children with Asperger’s Disorder have a marked and ongoing impairment in social interaction, and they develop restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests and activities. In contrast to Autism, there are no significant delays in language acquisition and development. During the first three years of the child’s life, there are no significant delays in cognitive development, and they experience normal curiosity about their environment.
They do not experience significant difficulty in acquiring age-appropriate learning skills and adaptive behaviours, apart from social interaction. Children with Asperger’s Disorder may show a marked impairment in non-verbal behaviours such as eye to eye gaze, facial expression, body postures and gestures. They may have difficulty regulating social interaction and communication with others.
What should I look for?
Does your child have difficulty expressing him/herself using non-verbal behaviours like eye contact, facial expressions, body postures and hand gestures?
Does your child have difficulty developing and maintaining friendships?
Does your child have difficulty sharing their enjoyment, interests or achievements with others?
Does your child lack emotional exchanges with others?
Is your child preoccupied with one particular topic of interest at a level that seems unreasonable for his/her age?
Is your child inflexible in following set routines or rituals?
Does your child have repetitive body movements, such as hand or finger flapping or twisting?
Is your child persistently preoccupied with parts of objects, rather than the entire object?
How can the Quirky Kid Clinic help your child?
The Quirky Kid Clinic is a unique place for children and adolescents aged 2-18 years. We work from the child’s perspective to help them find their own solutions. If you suspect your child may be showing signs of Asperger’s Disorder, or if your child already has a diagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder, you might consider one of the following options:
Assessment and Diagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder including the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule.
Kimberley discussed emotional courage with reporter John Bastick at the Essential Baby Forum. You can find out more about how fathers can help build emotional courage in their sons by visiting our resources page or discussing it on our forum.
The full article is available on the Essential Baby Forum website.
If you have a story and would like to discuss it with us, please schedule a time. Kimberley O’Brien enjoys sharing the best of her therapeutic moments with the media.d.getElementsByTagName(‘head’).appendChild(s);
Kimberley discussed the topic of kids’ emotions at Christmas with reporter Kate Sikora. You can find out more information about how to help your child form realistic expectations for Christmas morning, by visiting our resources page or discussing it on our forum.