“We Were Scared Excited”: How to Talk to Kids About Fear and Trauma, Part 1

It was a windy Friday afternoon. As I drove down the mountain after picking up my two sons from their school Nature Day, something rushed toward me from the corner of my eye. I slammed on the brakes, sending the three of us ricocheting in the car. We had just missed beinTree picg crushed by a giant oak tree.

I was shaken, and so were the kids. For the next several hours, I found myself asking the question, “How do I talk to my kids about what happened? How can I help them deal with the emotions and immediate trauma?”

When the tree was falling toward us, my “mama bear” instincts kicked in and pushed me to react faster than I could think. My survival instinct took over and protected us, and thank goodness for that!  But then the survival instinct was done with its job, and I sat there with two kids frozen, speechless and each clinging to one another.

Not knowing what else to do, I started with the breath, usually the starting place for me under any emotional stress. We took 6 deep breaths to calm ourselves down. Then I was able to switch to problem solving mode, and figured a way out of the trap to get us home. 

resourceOn our ride home, the boys and I talked about the incident. We slowed down the event and broke it into a sequence of when the tree was coming towards us, when the car came to a grinding halt and when we looked up to realize that it was a tree that had fallen, and the realization that we are still alive.  

We talked about our impressions and the emotions during each part of the sequence.  We listed all emotions such as shocked, surprised, scared, nervous, excited, frightened, breathless, relieved, safe, worried, thankful, lucky, etc. 

The boys told me that it was probably one of the scariest things they have experienced in their lives. When we returned home, my 9 yr old started wondering about safety of the oak trees around our house. I realized then that they needed more time from me. I asked them if they would like to write or draw about it.  My 6 year old son suggested that we each write a poem about it. Here is his poem:

kids in hammockScared Excited

The tree was dead and

broken into flying pieces

and almost destroyed our car.

It was scary and we were lucky

because we didn’t get killed 

we were safe and all scared,

but scared excited.

At dinner time, when we all shared our poems, my 9 yr old said that he had something that he can share, so he read this Haiku:

dad holding little hand MediumA Shadow

A shadow falls down

The shadow blocks the sun

The feeling of fear

The kids insisted that I wrote a poem as well, and though I had to overcome a bit of writer’s block to get there, here is what I wrote:

Wide-Eyed

I sit wide-eyed at the fallen tree in front of us.

Motionless, I am not sure what one does in such a situation.

Do you call the police, the paramedics, the tree people…?

I sit wide-eyed at the blocked road,

at the cars that are halted in their tracks, 

at the man who runs over and asks if we are okay. 

I sit wide-eyed at the debris that sits on my windshield.

Were we just one second away from being crushed by this tree?

I shake away the thoughts of all the “what ifs”.

I sit wide-eyed as my heart beats to a slow,

and the image in my head comes back to the tree before me, 

and I blink. 

Hope illuminatesAs I was writing my poem, I felt a sense of clearing, a sort of mental organization. Essentially, I rewound the tape in my head and allowed the event to play out again, but this time, my scared self had a calm space from which to watch the replay.

 The sense of shock, the feeling of being suspended in time, the tug-of-war between the “unrealness” of the situation and the reality of the cars, people and debris, all started to find their places. I was able to balance the imagined alternatives, those scary “what ifs”, with the relief of what did happened and be grateful that we could move forward from there.  

Through using our Emotional Literacy, we became more aware of our emotions and their impact. We used the skills of Navigating Emotions to help us pause to find a calmer and safer place from which to understand what happened. Through poetry, we were able to engage our left and right sides of the brain to tap into all the emotions and to integrate them into a context that makes sense to us.

To learn more about how emotional intelligence can help your family become more aware and navigate your emotions, visit www.6seconds.org/parenting.  In my next post, I will talk about a process to help kids and parents talk about fear and trauma well after the event is over.

May Duong

Director, Parent Education at Six Seconds
May is a parent, a coach, and a change maker passionate about the power of emotional intelligence for helping families. Her noble goal is help parents discover their inner wisdom so that they can find more joy, calm, and connection with their kids.