Last year, my husband accidentally set off the smoke alarm in our house. My then 2-year-old did not stop talking about it for at least six months. It was excruciatingly loud, even to my grown-up ears, and equally unexpected.
We were in the playroom when my husband decided to press the test button to make sure the smoke alarm worked. Then, he couldn’t get it to stop. Long story short: the piercing beeping shocked all of us and felt like it went on forever.
Our smoke alarm also announces “fire, get out,” or something along those lines, which was particularly disconcerting for my little guy when, on top of the shrill beeping, a loud voice was booming out of the ceiling. The whole thing scared my poor toddler—who also happens to be particularly sensitive to loud noises—out of his mind.
Certainly, there are plenty of other, more serious or traumatic events a child could experience, but in my son’s short two years of life, the trauma of The Great Smoke Alarm Debacle of 2019 was real. After a few weeks went by, then a few months went by, and he still did not stop talking about it, I wondered if we had somehow scarred him for life and set him up for a future of crippling anxiety about smoke alarms.
Good news: we didn’t. It’s actually perfectly normal and healthy for children to continue to bring up a scary or traumatic experience for some time afterward, Nina Kaiser, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and mom of two, reassured me. Dr. Kaiser founded Practice San Francisco, a wellness center that helps kids of all ages manage stress and anxiety.
“Kids make meaning out of their experiences in the same way we all do,” Dr. Kaiser said. “Often we’ll talk through it as a way to work through it.”
Yes, yes, yes. I definitely owe my mom/friends/husband many hours of their lives back for all the things they’ve talked through with me.
As parents, there are things we can do to help our child(ren) process and move on from a scary or traumatic experience—here are five ways to help them work through it.
1. Validate Their Emotions
The first step is to validate their emotions and experience. Perception is reality, so even if it did not seem as scary to you as an adult, it’s important to recognize and empathize with your little one’s feelings about it.
“Listen and validate that it was tough, ask how it felt, empathize with the process, and the experience,” Dr. Kaiser said. She suggested using phrases such as, “It sounds like you were really scared,” to show your understanding of their emotions.
Minimizing the experience won’t magically make it feel trivial to your little one; rather, it will likely make them question or feel bad about their reaction to it. Just like us adults do not appreciate someone trivializing something we find upsetting, kids have similar feelings about it.
“Some kids may be more sensitive than others to their experiences and how they cope,” board-certified pediatrician and author Dr. Jen Trachtenberg said. “Parents can support their child by allowing them to speak about it and supporting their child’s feelings. Don’t tell them they are being silly or not to worry; this will not help. Instead let them tell you why they are scared or worried, and ask them what would help them.”
2. Reassure Them
Reassuring is not sugar-coating or promising that it will never happen again (though I am quite positive my husband will not make the smoke alarm mistake again). Instead, as they focus on the scariness of their experience, make sure you also include the parts of the story they may omit, like how they coped and got through it, Dr. Kaiser told me.
“Underscore the positive coping piece,” Dr. Kaiser said. Using language like “Wow, you were scared, but you got through it,” or “I saw how brave you were—how did you feel afterward?” invites little ones to reflect on the idea that discomfort is temporary—a key element in building resilience in children.
And remember, it’s not only what you say—body language matters, too.
“Make sure to have neutral body language when speaking with your child,” Dr. Trachtenberg said. “Don’t roll your eyes or throw your hands up. Be reassuring, and let them speak, and be a sounding board for them. Often kids feel better when you can validate their feelings.”
3. Let Them Ask Questions
Whether your child was directly involved with a scary experience, saw it on TV, or heard about it elsewhere, they likely have questions. If it’s an event receiving media coverage, most children will have heard something, regardless of their age, the American Academy of Pediatrics notes in their guide to talking to children about tragedies and other news events.
The AAP suggests asking them what they’ve heard and then asking them what questions they have about it. Or if they’ve personally experienced something, you can ask them what they remember about it and what questions they have about what happened.
Allowing them to ask questions helps them to lead the conversation and also prevents you from inadvertently introducing new details or ideas that they may not be equipped emotionally to handle. Plus, they may have questions about things you would not have thought to explain.
4. Explain What You Can
Speaking of explaining, the AAP recommends filtering information and sharing it in a way that your child(ren) can understand and cope with. Your best bet is to explain what happened as simply as possible while keeping it appropriate for their level of understanding. Use language your child can relate to in their everyday world, like “There was an accident” or “You got hurt.”
Sometimes, a child will find an experience they have to go through more than once to be particularly scary or upsetting—like going to the dentist, getting shots at the doctor, or having other, more invasive medical experiences. In this case, Dr. Kaiser recommended also explaining the bigger picture of why we have to do these things. While you still want to validate how they feel, it’s important to help them understand the reason behind the experience when there is a reason.
Dr. Kaiser suggested keeping it simple with an explanation like: “Sometimes we have to do things that aren’t super fun, but we do it because ultimately, it’s helpful to us or good for our bodies.”
5. Remember It’s Normal
Perhaps most importantly, remember it’s perfectly normal and healthy for children to want to continue to talk about or replay a scary experience. This is how they make sense of the event, their emotions, and what happened. Eventually, they will move on from it.
OK, but what if they don’t? How can you tell if their behavior is something more?
“Watch to see the degree in which something is getting in their way,” Dr. Kaiser said. “Is this interfering with how the kid is living their life or how your family is operating on a day-to-day basis?”
If so, you may want to get a perspective from your little one’s pediatrician or teachers. And of course, if you have any concerns that their behavior might be outside of what’s considered normal, definitely bring it up with your child’s pediatrician or medical team.
“It’s good for kids to be in tune with their emotions and to be able to discuss scary experiences with a trusted and supportive non-judgmental adult or parent,” Dr. Trachtenberg said. “However, if a child is unable to function in daily life as the thoughts and worry are interfering with activities, this can be unhealthy.”
Bottom line: Talk about their feelings, monitor their behavior and follow your intuition if something seems off.