How to Address a Minor Trauma in a Toddler's Life

Upset Toddler
Credit: Natalie Faye.

A child in my daughter's preschool choked while in class earlier this month. The teacher noticed and after three thrusts using the Heimlich maneuver was able to dislodge the marble and saved the girl's life.

Hearing the teacher explain what happened earlier that afternoon at pick-up left parents, myself included, shaken and teary-eyed. But while the adults were extremely concerned and immediately started Googling area CPR classes; my daughter, who witnessed the incident and is good friends with the girl who choked, seemed largely unphased.

This is good, right? Everyone is safe and there is no emotional scarring. But I couldn't stop thinking about what happened, and I wanted to make sure my young child understood the gravity of the situation without scaring her. I wondered how and how much should I talk about this incident -- or any mini-trauma, for that matter, such as witnessing a car crash or seeing someone get injured during a sporting event -- with my little one?

Should I continuously stress the importance of never putting anything but food in her mouth and always wearing a seat belt? Need I touch on what could have happened in an effort to scare her into listening and making good decisions? How real do we really need to get with our kids, particularly young ones like toddlers?

The answer, according to Dr. Deborah Fernandez-Turner, children’s medical director at Mercy Maricopa Integrated Care in Phoenix, is to be honest, but positive.

​Here is what Dr. Frenandex-Turner had to say:

How much should a parent or guardian talk about a traumatic incident with their child? 

"A parent should openly and honestly answer any questions and allay their child’s fears, taking care to explain things in a way that’s developmentally appropriate," Fernandez-Turner said.

"Focus on the positive, but be truthful and real. Kids will know if you are not being genuine and they will then fill in the blanks with their imagination."

Is a better approach to instead focus on how everyone is OK and just move on?

"A parent should never avoid a question," Fernandez-Turner said. "Kids will fill in the blank to any unanswered question, or suspected unanswered questions, and what is in their imagination is much scarier than the truth."

Should the adult continuously stress ​​about the importance of safety, such as never putting anything but food in your mouth and wearing seat belts?

"It’s important not to behave differently than you usually would," she said. "Answer your child’s questions and then check in again later to see if there are any additional questions and see how they’re interpreting things so you can correct any misunderstanding."

Should the adult explain what the Heimlich maneuver is or who rescue workers are?

Fernandez-Turner said only  if asked.

Should the adult touch on what could have happened if rescue efforts weren't successful?

"Only if asked and then only in a positive way," she said. "You don’t want to say 'you could have died!' because that can create unnecessary worry or anxiety.

Rather, focus on the positive: That your child is always with someone who knows how to do the Heimlich, and when the child gets older they will learn it, too. You can explain that you and mom and dad always wear seat belts so we can be safe."

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