Use age-appropriate language and explanations. The timing and language used are important. Immediately following the trauma, the child will not be very capable of processing complex or abstract information. As the child gets further away from the event, she will be able to focus longer, digest more and make more sense of what has happened. Sometimes young children act as if they have not ‘heard’ anything you have said. It takes many individual moments of sad clarity or the reality of the trauma to actually sink in for young children. Between these moments of harsh reality, children use a variety of coping techniques – some of which can be confusing or upsetting for adults.
During this long process, the child continues to ‘re-experience’ the traumatic event. In play, drawing and words, the child may repeat, re-enact and re-live some elements of the traumatic loss. Surviving adults will hear children ask the same questions again and again. They may be asked to describe ‘what happened’ again and again. The child may develop profound ‘empathic’ concerns for others experiencing trauma, including cartoon characters and animals. “Is Mickey Mouse scared?” Or as they put their stuffed animals under the bed, they may explain “They have to go hide because the bad guy is coming with a gun.” The child will experience and process the very same material differently at different times following the trauma. In the long run, the opportunity to process and re-process many times will facilitate healthy coping. This re-processing may take place throughout the development of a given child. Even years after the original trauma, a child may ‘revisit’ the loss and struggle to understand it from their current developmental perspective. An intensity of emotional feelings will often be seen on various anniversary dates following the trauma (e.g., one week, one month and one year). Children may develop unusual fears of specific days – “Bad things happen on Fridays.” One of the most important elements in this process is that children of different ages have different styles of adapting and different abilities to understand abstract concepts often associated with trauma such as death, hate or the randomness of a tornado’s path or a drunk driver hitting their car.
Helping Traumatized Children A Brief Overview for Caregivers Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.