Opening the door to communication with young children

By Iris Perlstein, LCADC, LPC, ATR-BC

Previously, we discussed the possibility that children of first responders may be at risk for secondhand trauma or secondary traumatic stress (STS). We listed symptoms parents can watch for, including sleep disturbances, lowered concentration, sadness, irritability and thinking bad things are going to happen. If you notice your child might be experiencing these things, it’s important to be able to talk with him or her.

Here are some tips for creating an environment in which your children feel safe to express their thoughts and feelings, which is just as important to their wellbeing as teaching them the three Rs. And opening the door to communication when children are young can help keep it from being slammed shut when they reach adolescence.

Six levels of validation

In simplest terms, validation is a way to show your child that you get it. It is the ability to communicate that their thoughts, feelings and actions are understandable, and to create a psychologically safe space for them to open up. Validation does not necessarily mean you agree; it means you hear your child and understand where they’re coming from.

In using validation as an effective communication tool, it can be helpful to think in terms of the following six levels:

Paying attention. At the very minimum, validation means paying attention. It means putting down your phone, turning off the TV and tuning in to what your child is trying to say to you. Parents are good at multitasking, but when it comes to communicating with your child, it is important to push distractions to the side and show them they have your full attention. Try setting aside at least 15 minutes every day to have a conversation with your child.

Reflective listening. Reflective listening shows your child that you really do hear what they are saying. The act of reflective listening involves repeating back to your child what they said and asking if you got it right. For example, if your child is upset about not getting invited to a birthday party, you might say: “I hear you are sad about not getting invited to the party, is that right?” Try not to use language or a tone that may be perceived as judgmental, and try not to get them to change their mind. Even though you know there will be other parties, it is important not to minimize the hurt your child is feeling at that moment.

Reading between the lines. Try to be sensitive to what is not being said as much as you are to what is being said. Though you may not be able to read your child’s mind, you can sense when something is off. For instance, if your child is normally talkative at dinner and then one night is very quiet,
don’t ignore it. Say to them: “You’re unusually quiet tonight. How are you feeling?”

Understanding. Tell your child that you understand how they feel. Let them know that it’s understandable to feel anxious about appearing on video for their virtual class or that it makes a lot of sense that they’re feeling angry that they can’t see their friends because of COVID-19 and the need to social

Acknowledging the valid. Acknowledge when your child’s feelings make sense and that their behavior makes sense when there are facts and logic that support it. For example, if your child can’t sit still for class, acknowledge that it makes sense they are feeling tired and distracted and might not want
to sit at their desk.

Showing equality. Show your child that even though they are young, their feelings carry equal weight. Avoid dismissing their feelings as childish or immature. There is a time and a place for parents to share their own experiences, but in the moment, that could come off as invalidating or one-upping. Keep the focus on your child.

When help is needed
Sometimes, children may not be able to express their emotions or handle their feelings effectively, even in households where open communication is practiced and valued. If you are concerned about your child’s mental health, talk to your pediatrician and seek help from a mental health therapist. It’s
important to be aware that secondary traumatic stress (STS) is a symptom not a disease or disorder. So, if STS is a symptom, we need know the answer to the question: What is the source of this symptom? Because when we identify its source, then we can treat it so that the symptom will go away.

The Children’s Program at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health offers intensive outpatient treatment services for children ages 6 to 12 with emotional and behavioral problems that interfere with functioning at school and at home.

Currently, the program is offered via telehealth three or five days per week for three hours per day. The program helps children to:
• improve self-control and coping ability
• express emotions in a positive way
• function in healthier ways at school and home
• improve self-esteem.

Iris Perlstein is the clinical coordinator of first responder treatment services at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health. To learn more about the Children’s Program at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health, call 888-437-1610 or visit