How to Help Children Cope with Traumatic Events - Valley Behavioral Health
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June 8, 2020 By Julia Hood, Ph.D., BCBA, NCSP

A mother helping her smiling child cope with a traumatic event

In the past few months in Utah, we have experienced a pandemic, earthquakes, city-wide curfews, protests, and riots.  It can be difficult to know how your child is understanding what is happening and if they might be struggling emotionally.  It can be even more difficult to know how to find out and help your child navigate exposure to traumatic events such as these.  It is so important that you do acknowledge and respond to these situations with your kids and help them understand and process what is happening.

Most people respond to traumatic events in very different ways and no one way is correct.  Just like adults, children cope in different ways.  It is important to recognize and acknowledge whatever feelings they might be having and let them know it is normal and ok to be having these feelings.  Don’t tell children “you don’t need to worry” or “this shouldn’t upset you”.  Validate their feelings as much as possible.  Listen to your kids, really listen to them.  Try to understand from them how they are feeling and what they are thinking, try to avoid telling them how to think or feel.  It is important to really listen so you know how they are feeling and the concerns they have.  Don’t assume they have the same concerns or worries as you.

It is important to act calmly and help your child feel safe, if you have a lot of anxiety your kids pick up on it.  Children look to their parents and other trusted adults for reassurance and comfort.  Your child may need more hugs, snuggles, and hand-holding.  It will also help your children if you keep routines as much as possible.  Some children, especially younger children, may not be able to talk about what is happening, but their feelings and interpretations will come out in their play.  It is important to watch and listen to what is happening when your child is playing.  For some children, it may be changed in behavior that is noticeable.  These could include changes in sleep patterns, eating habits, behavior, etc.

Children are aware of what is going on around them so it’s best not to assume they aren’t aware of a situation that has occurred.  Don’t try to ignore it and hope they are unaware, you should have an open and honest conversation with them about what is happening.  Be sure to share age-appropriate information about the situation and allow them to ask questions.  It can be helpful to limit exposure to news coverage, particularly for younger children.  When an event occurs, it can be on the news and social media around the clock.  Prolonged exposure can affect your child and can intensify their fear or other feelings they are experiencing.

If you do notice changes in behavior, try talking to your child about it.  You can offer for them to write or draw about what they are feeling or fears they might have if they are uncomfortable talking.  If your child is showing signs of being upset or anxious, you can also help teach them calming techniques.  Some examples of calming techniques include:

Grounding techniques – Have your kids look for:

·       5 things they see
·       4 things they feel
·       3 things they hear
·       2 things they smell
·       1 thing they taste

Belly breathing 

·       Have your child lie on his/her back, close their eyes, and breathe normally while paying attention to all the parts of their body that move when they breathe.
·       Have them place one hand on their chest and one hand on their stomach.
·       Have your child to inhale through the nose and into the abdomen as if their stomach was a balloon they are blowing up.
·       Have them inhale for a count of four, then hold it in for a count of four.
·       Have your child exhale and push out the air from their stomach as if deflating a balloon.
·       Repeat the exercise for a few minutes or until your child feels more relaxed.

Breathing in flowers, blowing out birthday candles 

·       Have your child imagine they are smelling a flower and breathe in
·       Then have them pretend they are blowing out birthday candles as they breath out
·       Repeat for a few minutes or until your child feels more relaxed

Do yoga with your kids 

·       There are many videos on youtube or other websites that you can use to guide you and your child

If your child is showing significant changes in behavior or extreme anxiety or depression, you may want to seek the help of a therapist.  Here at Valley Behavioral Health, we have a number of services for both children and adults that can help.  You can contact us at 888-949-4864 or visit our social media or our website at


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