Helping Children Process Emotions During Stressful or Traumatic Events

I originally wrote this post for friends in Ukraine, but realize that many of the tips can help your children, too. They may not be experiencing a war outside your door, but they too have experiences which are distressing or traumatic. using these tips can help minimize the permanent negative impact and even help them begin healing in the midst of what it happening.

Here are some things you can do to help your children process their thoughts and emotions about the traumatic events around them.

1. As worried as you might be, do not force your children to talk. Encourage them and give them opportunities, because talking is part of processing, but some children need to think about things awhile before they are ready to talk.

2. Be patient. Your child might talk a lot one day, the next day talk about random things that have nothing to do with the war and not talk much at all the next. All of that is normal.

3. Avoid asking questions that can be answered with one word like, “How are you?” The answer is almost always “Fine”. Try instead to ask questions like “what emotions are you feeling right now” that are more likely to give you more information in their answers.

4. Consider teaching them how to use a scale for each emotion with a 1 meaning I don’t feel this emotion much at all to a 10 this emotion feels almost or totally out of control. This helps both you and them monitor the intensity and change in emotions.

5. Many of you have little ones or children with special needs. Some may have trouble naming emotions. Try describing what their body might feel like with a specific emotion and if they say that’s how they are feeling, name the emotion. For example “I feel like crying” is sad. My fists are all balled up and I feel like I want to punch something” is angry, etc.

6 For non verbal children with special needs, draw a happy face, sad face, etc and see if you can get them to point to the one they are feeling.

7. When explaining what is happening (note that this was written for Ukrainians, but the emotions and temptations can apply to multiple circumstances) use the simplest possible explanation for now. Try not to overstate or make promises you can’t keep. “Some people are doing things that are hurting other people and that makes us and God very sad.” Is more constructive than extreme anger, hatred, cursing, etc. Believe me, I understand your anger and frustration and I am in no place to judge how you are dealing with everything. I do know, however, that you do not want your sweet children to grow up to be bitter, angry adults with hard cruel hearts like those that are causing trouble now. Moderating your anger when talking with and around your children can keep their hearts soft and loving in spite of what they are experiencing. And those are the hearts that God can use the most.

8. If you have access to crayons, pens, paper…it doesn’t have to be fancy, but art is one of the very best ways for them to express their emotions right now. (We will go into other strategies when things calm down) Let them draw anything they want. Don’t panic if their drawings seem dark or even strange right now. Limited art supplies can sometimes explain choices that were made in the design rather than some emotional issue.

9. If you have to flee (for Ukraine, but could apply in natural disasters here), but want to take a few toys, choose a stuffed animal first and then toys like figures they can use to act out scenarios. Don’t worry for now about the content of the play, just let them get those emotions out talking to their teddy bear or playing war games with the toys. You can get help sorting through all that from a professional later if needed.

10. Realize your child might experience flight, fight or freeze reactions because of the trauma. This may or may not be accompanied by behavioral issues from lack of sleep, low blood sugar, change in routine and a hundred other things. It’s okay to correct them, but go lighter than normal on the consequences for rebellious behavior. We all need a little extra grace when under huge amounts of stress. It does not excuse negative behaviors which is why correction is necessary, but their lives right now feel like one huge consequence.

11. Your kids may need new strategies for all of these new experiences. Clearly define any expectations that will be put on them and try to help them adjust as much as possible.

12. Do not count to get them to behave or give them lots of repeated warnings before you give correction. You may be in a situation where their very lives may depend on first time compliance to your commands in certain situations. Older ones can understand the realities. Don’t scare little ones. Just tell them it helps you keep them safe. Promise you will explain why you asked them to do something after they have obeyed you.

13 When your children are frightened and in flight, fight or freeze mode, they will have a hard time making good decisions, having discussions about behaviors, verbally expressing their emotions, etc. Their brain has slipped into the lower brain functions we discussed – the ones we would use if we saw a bear right in front of us. When they calm down a bit and feel safer, their brain can return to doing some of those higher mental skills.

14. Be aware of triggers. Sounds that are similar to air raid sirens and bombs exploding may trigger them for quite some time even when it isn’t really those things. Be aware that those triggers will send them back into fight, flight and feeeze mode.

15. Don’t worry too much if they regress to earlier childhood behaviors like thumb sucking, bed wetting, etc. Those will usually calm down once things calm down.

16. Give them as much sleep as they can possibly get given your circumstances. Let them sleep off and on all day and night if they need to catch up.

17. Watch for extreme fluctuations in personality lasting more than a few days. None of you is your “normal” self under these circumstances and that is normal. I would only be concerned with extreme changes in personality lasting more than a few days. If you don’t have access to a professional over there, let me know and we will figure out a way to get you some help.

18. Don’t be afraid to teach them about the emotions God and Jesus had. Older children can benefit from reading Psalms and as mentioned in the first post, encourage them to pray their emotions to God especially if they don’t want to talk to you yet. Some children understand the stress you are experiencing and will push down their own emotions to avoid causing you more stress.

19. Don’t forbid them to cry or criticize the emotions they are feeling. It is what it is right now. The trick is teaching them not to make bad choices when they are feeling strong emotions.

If you would like a copy of this in Ukrainian to share with friends there, please message me and I will get you a copy.

Published by

Thereasa Winnett

Thereasa Winnett is the founder of Teach One Reach One and blogger at Parenting Like Hannah. She holds a BA in education from the College of William and Mary. She has served in all areas of ministry to children and teens for more than thirty years and regularly leads workshops for ministries and churches. She has conducted numerous workshops, including sessions at Points of Light’s National Conference on Volunteering and Service, the National Urban Ministry Conference, Pepperdine Bible Lectures, and Lipscomb’s Summer Celebration. Thereasa lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband Greg, where she enjoys reading, knitting, traveling and cooking.

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