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Talking to Your Traumatized Child


Tuesday, April 1, 2008
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After her son’s suspension, Mary called the school social worker for help with his behavior and trouble sleeping. Although she was not comfortable calling the social worker, a community member encouraged Mary to ask for support in raising her son.

At the meeting, the social worker asked Mary about her life. Mary reluctantly told what happened during the war. Since her husband died, Mary has been unsure how to parent her son and discipline him in a new culture. She is considering sending her son back to Africa even though there is continuing conflict. And, she is worried her own immigration status may be affected if her son continues to get into trouble.

The social worker listened closely to Mary’s story before reassuring her that she would not be sent home for having trouble with her son. Schools do not share information with immigration officials. Then he explained that Mary’s son may be misbehaving because of his own reactions to the war and ongoing stress. He asked Mary if she talked with her son about his feelings. Mary said she felt uncomfortable talking about the past and hoped he would just forget what happened.

The social worker suggested that talking with adults about his feelings might help the boy. He recommended Mary find outside support to help her and her son talk with each other better. A trusted friend, faith leader or counseling professional could help them understand their struggle as normal responses to war trauma. Mary thought the social worker’s advice was reasonable and began thinking about talking with her son about his feelings.

Whether or not a child is having trouble at school, it is good for parents to talk with their children about feelings.

First, pick a time to talk with your child when you are both rested and calm. Listen to your child in a supportive manner. Acknowledge your child’s feelings and fears. Even if based on misinformation, your child’s feelings are real and need to be understood. Children talk about their emotions only when feeling safe.

Surviving war is upsetting and difficult for everyone. Tell your child it is normal for both adults and children to be troubled. Reassure your child it is okay to share feelings of worry, anger or sadness.

Talk about how you take care of your own anxious feelings. Your child will know that you are okay and learn new ways of managing feelings. 

Avoid letting your child hear bad news and upsetting phone calls. Hearing about bad events can increase feelings of worry. When your child does hear upsetting things, be prepared to talk about the situation.

Keep up a normal family routine as much as possible. Attend your local church or mosque. Find time to be together even if you are working long hours. Don’t avoid your child when you are stressed, but be sure to find a way to manage your feelings. Sometimes a phone call during the day may be helpful to you and your child.

Continue to take care of yourself. Parents who manage their feelings well can help their children learn to deal with school situations in better ways. It’s not just your words that comfort your children. Your movements and facial expressions also tell your child whether or not everything will be all right.

By talking together you and your child can work together with school staff to find better ways of dealing with problems in school. Don’t be afraid to seek professional counseling help if you and your child cannot solve these problems together. With time and hard work, you can help prepare your child for success in school and life.

This article was written by staff of the Center for Victims of Torture. CVT is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to heal the wounds of torture on individuals, their families and their communities and to stop torture worldwide. For information or referral, call 612-436-4800.

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