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Understanding how a child’s brain processes tragedy and terror

Raising Kids |

Let’s be honest: stories of terrorism, mass tragedy and disaster feel incredibly bleak—even for us as adults. The world can be a scary and sad place at times, and it can be heartbreaking to watch our children struggle to make sense of the pain.

Before we can learn strategies on how to not only protect our kids from tragedy—but instil resilience and strength in our kids when they do witness or experience tragedy & trauma—we first have to understand how our children’s brains work in relation to tragedy & trauma.

The psychology behind how children process tragedy & terror. 

From infancy to adolescence, children’s brains use their experiences to make sense of the world. We call this ‘building a schema’ – putting together operating principles to make sense of our surroundings, the world, and judgments about danger, safety and so on.

When a child experiences a trauma, or is exposed to a story or image depicting trauma, they are receiving a new experience that is so unlike what they’ve encountered before, there is no logical place to settle this in their mind. It doesn’t fit anywhere. It bounces around in their psyche, sort of like a pinball, trying to find a spot to rest.

The psyche will revisit the memory, trying to make sense of it. This is why we see nightmares, flashbacks, reenacting in play, drawings etc often in children, and why many children will ask the same question over and over again about an upsetting event.

Sometimes, it will seem as if the child is in a perpetual state of agitation, and this is in fact correct.

The more directly experienced this event is, the more serious and severe the symptoms would be. We see increased symptoms of trauma in kids who have been firsthand witnesses to a disaster, or who have had repeated exposure to threats, such as in a situation where there is violence in the family home.

The brain is wiring itself through childhood, too. As the brain is wiring itself, if there are continual cortisol or adrenaline bursts, the brain kind of becomes wired to be unsettled; to always be in ‘fight or flight’ mode. This adaptation actually makes it more difficult to emotionally regulate over time. Instead, we want to help children develop what is called an integrated brain, where information and experiences are processed appropriately.

Children are still developing an understanding of the world.

They can develop a sense of the world as being a generally positive, safe place—or an unsafe, unpredictable place. These operating principles, this ‘schema’, becomes the foundation from which they make decisions into adolescence and adulthood. Are they going to raise their hand to take a chance on that question, are they going to try out for a part in a play, go out on a limb and apply for that job, or is the world too dangerous to take any risks?

This is why it’s important to protect children, especially young children, from unnecessary exposure to terror and tragedy in the news. For more on this topic, check out our course.