How to talk to children about protests

Ask the Expert

GREENVILLE, S.C. (WSPA) – Even if you are watching a traumatic event that happened to someone else, such as a video, it can still cause trauma and develop into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Dr. Carson Felkel said.

“When viewing things vicariously, it can absolutely lead to trauma and PTSD,” he said. “Some are more susceptible than others, probably because of genetics and life experiences and especially for some kids just watching something on TV can lead to trauma,” he said.

This is also the case for personally experiencing racial discrimination, he said. “Experiencing racial discrimination can absolutely be a trauma, either experiencing it directly or witnessing it on TV. This is something parents should be discussing with their kids to help them process it,” he said.

If you suspect your child might be experiencing trauma but is not verbally expressing it, he said to look for physical displays of distress, such as headaches, nightmares, inability to fall asleep and behavioral problems like outbursts.

Dr. Felkel said some people may be more susceptible to post traumatic stress disorder based on genetics and life experiences.

“Kids have a very vivid imagination and can actually be scarier than what’s really going on,” he explained. “Parents should initiate the conversation, ask the child what they already understand and then provide helpful feedback as to what’s really going on.”

The right age for this conversation is different for every child, he said, but believes that Kindergarten is not too early to start the conversation. “A lot of four and five-year-olds are already forming a narrative about the world they live in,” he said.

When initiating this conversation, he said to ask children what they know, listen and let them be in control of the conversation.

“It is really normal to feel scared confused to not understand what is going on to have a strong opinion or feel like you cant really change anything,” he said. “If you do approach talking to a child, its important that you be a good listener, in charge of your emotions and don’t be afraid to say to your kid, ‘I don’t really understand what’s going on, but we’re going to get through this together and lets continue to talk about it.’”

If a child says they don’t know how he or she is feeling, Dr. Felkel says gentle prompts can help.

“They frequently don’t have the words to describe their emotions and they express their issues in feelings of their bodies. They frequently say, ‘I don’t know how I’m feeling.’ So I like to offer up suggestions that are simple, like angry, scared, worried, confused, and then allow them to begin to identify which feeling they have,” he said.

Using listening skills is paramount, he added, and these skills require patience and grace, he said.

“It actually takes a lot of skill and patience to ask an open ended question like, ‘How are you feeling?’ and then allow them to just talk. If we really want to make a change in our world we need to be able to let someone tell their story.

He suggested trying to avoid making your own opinions or feelings the focus of the conversation, and says it is important for parents to be able to not express all their feelings and fears to overwhelm the child.

“Gauge their body language,” he said. “See if they shut down or engage in conversation. More than anything you want to create that open dialogue over time.”

Dr. Felkel says it’s important to know your child’s “baseline”for normal behavior, and if you notice a change in you’re his or her mental health that lingers for 1 to 3 months, or in your own, he recommends scheduling a visit with a counselor, therapist or your family physician. 

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