How to talk to kids about residential schools and the trauma they caused

The discovery of what are believed to be the remains of 215 children on the property of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., may have you talking with your children about Indigenous issues, or wondering how to. Clinical psychology doctoral candidate Ben Gould, a member of P.E.I.'s Abegweit First Nation, shares his advice.

'If they have a question on their hands, they'll come and ask'

Shoes and flowers laid at a memorial on Parliament Hill to honour the estimated 215 children found buried on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

This week's news of the discovery of what are believed to be the remains of 215 children on the property of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., may have you talking with your children about it, or wondering how to. 

Ben Gould is a band member of Abegweit First Nation on Prince Edward Island and a clinical psychology doctoral candidate working at Serene View Ranch Psychological Services in Stratford. 

He spoke with CBC News about how to talk to children about the events and the trauma that is resurfacing among Canada's First Nations. 

Young children

Children between the ages of two and six years are not ready for a discussion of any depth about residential schools or intergenerational trauma. 

"With that age group they really see the family dynamic as their world," Gould notes. 

While there is a good chance children might see the information, parents do not need to go into a lot of detail of exactly what's going on, he said.

"Keeping that news at bay can always be very helpful," he said. "Not letting them see too much information right away, to overstimulate them, because it can end up being more confusing than anything."

Kids that age might need reassurance that they are safe and that their parents will not allow anything to happen to them, he said, "because they do think in very literal terms ... 'is that going to happen to me?'"


Children between the ages of seven and 12 are more exposed to the world around them and more engaged with YouTube, Facebook and other social media, Gould said. 

Ben Gould is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate working at Serene View Ranch in Stratford, and a member of Abegweit First Nation on P.E.I. (Submitted by Ben Gould)

"They do have more opportunity to see things and because of that, you can have the opportunity to talk in a little more detail about these types of things," he said.

"One of the things I would think about with that population is really — the right moment. And what we've learned, what we know about, is for that age group, if they have a question on their hands, they'll come and ask.… Don't always feel like you have to bring it up with them." 

These are tough conversations. They can be really challenging, emotionally triggering.— Ben Gould

When kids approach you, find out what they already know and understand, and ask where they got the information. That will allow you to set the stage to talk about these sensitive topics, he said.  

"It can allow you to not get to a place where you're overexplaining and kind of going above and beyond where they're actually sitting with this information," Gould said.

Then you can establish a "safe place" to discuss the issues with your children, he said. 

"These are tough conversations. They can be really challenging, emotionally triggering," Gould said. Let them know you can work through those together.

Once you talk about what happened to Canada's Indigenous Peoples in the past, Gould said you can gently move on to present-day problems. 

"Things aren't done with. Things are still happening, coming up," he said. "Communicate with them in a more simpler form of, you know, some people back in the day, they wrongly believed that different-skinned people were 'lesser-than,' and 'not as good as.' And so you're not going into too much detail about the specifics of residential school … but you're getting there, you're building into it a bit."


The dynamic between parents and their kids really starts to shift when children become teenagers, Gould said. They're more engaged with media, and notice other people's comments. Their identities begin to take shape. 

"They really get to start to look for, 'What's important to me? How do I think about things?' Values start to come up a bit," Gould said. "That's where the parent could really take a more hands-on approach with them, really start to get into some of the stuff that's been going on."

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Gould said parents should encourage open dialogue, even if they don't see eye to eye with their kids.

"Say things like 'We may not agree on everything but I encourage what you have to say and where it comes from and what that's about,'" Gould advises. 

"For example: 'What do you think about this news of the 215 children? What do you think about what you're seeing right now? Who do you think's at fault? Where's your headspace with this?"

The biggest thing that parents can do, Gould added, "is really representing a sense of humility, to be humble." He said humility is a strong Indigenous value and shows respect. 

"If you can say to your teen, 'I don't know all the answers, I'm not sure what's going on, I'm not really sure how to put this together, but why don't we figure that out?'"

He suggests taking older kids to Abegweit First Nation where they are doing different types of ceremonies and events, to help everyone process the information and their feelings. 

"What's going on is a tragedy, it's very heartbreaking of course — but it's very complex in terms of what it does, the impacts it has ... the intergenerational trauma. Understanding that that happened, that was years ago but it wasn't years ago, because it's still happening now in different ways, in different indirect impacts."

Then he recommends parents share their values: tell your kids where you stand, and why. 

Make sure it's not a one-off 

Gould urges parents not to ignore or deflect talking with your kids about what is happening because they may be feeling less than informed. 

Explain that even if you don't know all the answers, tell your kids "we can go on this journey together," he said.

Gould said he himself is grappling with this week's revelations and the hurt they've brought up. His grandfather was a residential school survivor.

"It's really an eye-opener that there's a lot of things that really kind of need to be addressed before this type of hurt can start to fade away a bit," Gould said. 

"Hopefully this is the spark that's needed to really address this and avoid this from happening again in any capacity." 

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With files from Jessica Doria-Brown