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Trauma

Help! I Had a Panic Attack in Front of My Kids, Now What?

Parenting with PTSD can be complex. Here's how to talk to kids about it.

Key points

  • Parents with PTSD have difficulty explaining symptoms such as flashbacks to their children.
  • When talking to kids about trauma, it's best for the parent to focus on what happens when they get triggered rather than the actual trauma story.
  • Parents can address their trauma through therapy and the support of "compassionate witnesses."
  • Explanations of a parent's trauma reaction need to be developmentally appropriate for the child and ideally, instill hope.

So, it happened. I supposed I should be relieved. It’s the thing I was dreading since I found out I was pregnant. I had a flashback in front of my daughter. We were at the mall, having a nice time, combining errands with some fun activities like riding the carousel. We were totally relaxed. Suddenly, there was a loud BOOM, and I was back there. I must have looked scary, because my daughter started to cry, and I couldn’t even calm her down.

Danielle is a member of the Post-Traumatic Parenting community. Her trauma involves being in a terrorist bombing attack. She has undergone years of therapy, and mostly, her flashbacks are under control, but loud, sudden sounds can still trigger flashbacks for her.

Talking to Kids About Our Trauma

We do need to talk to our kids about our trauma because Little Humans are perceptive creatures. Toddlers are wired to read their parent’s signals. The essence of secure attachment is checking in with Mom during exploration. It’s Mom signaling “this is safe” that gives a baby the security to venture forth and explore new territory. When a parent is dysregulated, children generally can read that, and it’s scary for them.

It’s hard for parents to talk to children about our trauma because our instinct is to protect our children. We don’t want them to know the harsher realities of life, especially when those realities hit so close to home. It’s one thing to talk about safety during a fire, but it’s another whole thing to talk about safety in a fire when the parent has been in one. It’s the same with safe/unsafe touch, gun violence, or any other traumatic experience. It’s hard to talk about at home when the danger hits so close to home.

After years of working with Post-Traumatic Parents, I've developed some guidelines for parenting through trauma and talking to kids about our trauma.

I: Talk About Process, Not Content

We want to talk to kids about the process of our flashbacks, panic attacks, or why we have certain safety procedures that other parents don’t have. They don’t have to hear “I was in a car accident and almost bled out, so seeing you without a seatbelt freaks me out.” Instead, they can hear: “Mommy has a lot of big feelings about car safety, so this is something very important to me.”

 Larisa Vasileva /123RF
Talking to children about our PTSD can be tricky. Here are some guidelines.
Source: Larisa Vasileva /123RF
  • Process = what happens inside the parent when the parent is triggered, what the child can observe
  • Content = the trauma story

In general, exactly what triggers our trauma isn’t necessarily something the child needs to hear about because it’s not usually developmentally appropriate information. The process of what happens is what concerns them. In Danielle’s case, her child was frightened by her reaction — seeing her mom pale, with her eyes unfocused and a rigid body posture scared the child. She doesn’t need to hear about a public bombing; she needs to make sense of how her mom reacted to the loud noise.

An example would be to say, “Mommy was startled by that loud noise! It was very sudden, so Mommy got a lot of big feelings. Sometimes, when Mommy hears loud and sudden noises like that, I get big feelings. I learned a great breathing game that helps me when that happens. I will teach it to you, and we will do it together.”

That type of response is perfect. It focuses on process — “Mommy was startled and had big feelings." It also gives the child a conceptual framework to understand what happened, and it doesn’t need any content. Of course, there will come a time in Danielle’s daughter’s life when it will be developmentally appropriate to tell her more of the story — especially if she asks about it — but that will be closer to adolescence/adulthood than toddlerhood.

II: Keep Trauma Small Enough to Focus on the Child

The one factor that all trauma therapies have in common is the presence of a compassionate witness, someone to listen to the story of the trauma, witness the pain of survival, and help the survivor reinterpret and reframe the story. We all need that compassionate witness, to heal. When we don’t have a formal one — such as a therapist — we tend to find them in our lives. Maybe that’s a friend who has been through something similar. But if we lack that, we run the risk of using our children as our compassionate witnesses, and that’s not healthy for the child.

This becomes even more pressing when the trauma occurred in our family of origin. I’ve heard several variations on this theme:

When I was growing up, my father was an alcoholic. He was a demanding, critical, and authoritarian person who used shame and physical punishment as his main parenting tools. It was worse when he was drunk or hungover, of course, but always, he made me feel worthless. Now that I’m a dad, I want to do everything exactly the opposite. Bizarrely, now that he’s retired, he’s a different person. He wants to be an involved grandpa, but I’m terrified to let my children spend too much time with him. It’s not like I can tell them what he was like when I was growing up — I barely have words for it myself — but I also don’t have the right words to explain why we don’t see him much.

The key here is processing the trauma enough so that the temptation to say something like “Sure, Grandpa seems nice now, but let me tell you the things he did to me when I was your age ... ” passes. Giving the children a developmentally appropriate explanation is fine. For example:

“Grandpa and I have different ideas about what’s appropriate for children, so I like to keep a close eye on you when we’re around him.”

Save the stories for therapy! A child doesn’t need to hear about alcoholic rages, being beaten with a belt for minor infractions, or being harshly punished. Even saying something like “Sometimes, Grandpa uses hurting words, and I want to make sure he won’t use them with you” is vastly preferable to telling children the full trauma story. Sometimes, we do have to warn children to be careful when around certain relatives — but our goal needs to be prevention, not venting.

  • Prevention = enough developmentally appropriate information to keep the child safe.
  • Venting = getting a story “off our chests”, having the validation of a compassionate witness

I can’t reiterate this enough – all trauma survivors need a compassionate witness. Sometimes, friends or support groups are not enough. That’s when we need mental health professionals who are trauma-informed. And sometimes, therapy is not enough because the story is too big, and that’s when we need healing communities of people who can witness our trauma as we witness theirs and heal together.

III: Keep Developmental Level in Mind

We must make sure that the explanation we use is developmentally appropriate in two ways:

  1. The child’s brain is capable of comprehending what we are saying.
  2. Our explanation fits in with the developmental task that the child is working through.

We want to ensure that the child can understand what we are saying. “Mommy had a flashback” isn’t something a 4-year-old can comprehend. “Mommy had a lot of big feelings when she heard that loud noise,” makes much more sense. The 4-year-old can relate to “having big feelings” and can understand the simple explanation of why Mommy had “big feelings” — the loud noise. Crucially, Mommy is also explaining what she intends to do about it.

In general, when a child is pre-verbal, or early verbal, we don’t need to explain anything using words. Instead, we can co-regulate by calming ourselves as we calm the child. Until a child is school age, we’re really just working on establishing our own calm, so we can help to calm them.

Early school-age children are in the stage that Erikson called “Industry vs. Inferiority.” It’s all about competence, learning skills, and cooperating with peers at that age. Focus your explanation on using the simplest terms, with competence-based language.

Examples include:

  • "Mommy has a lot of big feelings about loud, sudden noises. But a lot of times, they’re not dangerous. Here’s a breathing game I use to help me manage those feelings. You can use that game too."
  • "Daddy cares a lot about safety rules and making sure you’re protected, so even if your friends don’t have that rule, we do."
  • "Once, someone did some hurting things to Mommy, and when I’m reminded of it, I get sad. Here’s what I do to handle sadness until it goes away."

Adolescents are in the stage of “Identity vs. Role Confusion.” It’s all about — who am I, and who am I, in relation to my peer group? At this stage, children are ready to hear an age-appropriate version of our stories, but keep it simple and focused on them, and what they can learn.

  • "When I was your age, I was bullied. It made me feel scared and shy. That’s why I value kindness so much now."
  • "I know you wish you could go to a big family holiday party like your classmates. You don’t like to be different — no one does. My family wasn’t as safe and careful about people’s feelings as we are, and that’s why we don’t spend so much time with them."

IV: Establish Hope

Whenever we’re talking to children about our trauma, whether it’s talking about a symptom like a flashback or panic attack, or the need to do things differently than others, we always want to establish a sense of hope. Some Post-Traumatic Parents challenge this — they say things like, “There was nothing positive about being abused by my stepfather. I don’t want to spin it into something it’s not.”

The truth is, the situation isn’t positive. But the Post-Traumatic Parent is. Sometimes, we confuse our experience of post-traumatic growth with excusing the person who caused the trauma. This is a dialectic — we don’t have to forgive or condone the person who caused the trauma, to emphasize hope in our narrative to our children.

Being bullied was awful — but if it gave that dad a sense that kindness is something to value, that’s the piece to emphasize to children. Having flashbacks is terrifying — but if breathing or grounding exercises confer a sense of control, make sure your children know that. It’s the same for parenting differently than how we were parented, instituting stronger safety rules, or knowing how much to value connections with our family — these are all virtues that we might come to as a result of trauma. The trauma wasn’t OK — but our children need to know that we are.

References

Erikson, E.H. (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: Norton. Erikson, E.H. (1958).

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