The viewing of graphic content online by younger children can be deeply impactful. Follow the 4 step formula to manage the trauma and lessen the emotional impact.
Just hold space
In the early moments after exposure to horrifically graphic content, children often need space to cry, rage, close down and generally process what they’ve witnessed in their own way. When the brain is in overwhelm, finding words might be tricky, so if your child is distressed but unable to articulate why, just hold that heart space wide open for them to dive into without the need for words. Remember, their feeling of safety has just ruptured and repair is usually messy. Less (words) is more during this time. Reassure through proximity and saying familiar words of comfort on repeat (You’re OK. You’re safe. I’ve got you.)
If your child has accessed a device that they’re not usually allowed, or seen the content on an app they’re not supposed to have – this is NOT the time for that discussion.
Playing scenes over and over in your mind following trauma is to be expected – but it’s not very helpful. While the mind knows it’s not happening in real time, the body responds with the same stress hormones it would in the heat of the moment. So, helpful interrupting means quick distractions that break the pattern of re-playing the traumatic video stored in the mind. “Look at this..” or, “”I just remembered…” or, “Let’s go and…” Be noticeable, a little dramatic, a bit urgent so that you break the pattern of the replay.
New pictures for quiet times
In those moments before sleep or when the mind starts to wander, returning to the stored trauma reel can jolt a child into frightened wakefulness. Use your bedtime settling ritual to pose a problem that takes up your child’s mind. Maybe it’s wondering about a new building in Minecraft, or fitting all the furniture into the car on the weekend, or how best to re-organise their bedroom – something that uses the mind’s visualisation capacity. It squeezes out the replay of the trauma reel.
Really lean into your empathy. Saying things like, “Well, you should know better than to watch that…” and similar rebukes are not helpful to a child who is emotionally suffering from too much, too soon for their young mind. We wouldn’t apply first aid roughly to teach our child a lesson if they injured themselves doing something obviously idiotic. Emotional first aid needs to be applied gently, with love and a self-reminder that our young ones are still learning. So, lean in, listen more than you speak, tell a story about something similar that happened to you, and apply love as the bandaid to the psychological wounding until it heals.
Claire Orange is a child and family therapist who has worked with families for nearly 3 decades. With 4 sons of her own, she fully understands that over-exposure happens in an instant and that leaning in with love really matters in these moments.