This time of year usually finds most of us focused on cultivating gratitude, generosity, kindness and hopefulness in ourselves and our families.
But that can seem a daunting task when we’re faced with the onslaught of shootings, terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other acts of violence and destruction in our everyday lives. Whether it’s an event in our own community or one across the glob, talking to our children aebout these difficult issues is vitally important, even if it may seem near-impossible at the time.
For many parents and caregivers our initial reaction in times of crisis is to protect and shelter our children by any means possible. But children’s lives are touched by trauma on a regular basis, and it’s impossible to shield them from it all.
Children often intuitively know when something sad or scary has happened, and not talking about it can result in them misinterpreting or overestimating the information they’re receiving. Our long-term goal is to make kids feel safe and supported, so it’s much healthier to have these challenging conversations and offer support and guidance, rather than leave them to misunderstand our silence.
Children of different ages respond differently to traumatic events, and each child has unique needs and ways of expressing themselves. Some kids may react immediately, while others may not manifest difficulties until later.
Infants and toddlers cannot comprehend what is going on, but they know when their caregiver is upset and can often mirror the emotions of those around them.
Preschool-age children (3 to 5) can understand the effects of trauma and may have trouble adjusting to change and loss. They may regress in their behavior and exhibit new fears and anxieties, and changes in eating and sleeping habits.
In school-age children you may also see new worries, attention difficulties and behavioral changes such as aggression or withdrawal.
Preteens and adolescents may exhibit withdrawn or argumentative behavior, anxiety and sadness, unexplained physical aches and pains, sleep disturbance and engagement in risky behaviors. These changes can manifest as problems at school or difficulties in their relationships.
Regardless of a kid’s age, reactions to trauma typically last a few weeks and then self-resolve. If a child’s response seems excessively intense, lasts longer than a few weeks or interferes with normal, daily activities, there may be cause for concern, and professional help should be sought.
In our culture of 24/7 news coverage and social media it’s also important to monitor what children are seeing and hearing. Media coverage, especially graphic images, can heighten fear and anxiety in children of all ages. The more time kids and teens spend watching coverage of the events, the more likely they are to have negative reactions.
The younger the child, the more exposure should be limited. For older children and teens it’s important to watch what they’re watching and use those opportunities to discuss, educate and reassure.
In addition to supervising and understanding media coverage, it’s equally important to monitor adult conversations. Children often listen when adults are unaware, and they can misinterpret what they hear.
Experiencing and processing a traumatic event can be exhausting, so don’t forget to take care of yourself and model that self-care behavior for your children. Turn off the news and take a break when needed. The importance of good nutrition, physical activity and adequate sleep in combating stress cannot be overstated. As horrific as events may seem, they’re also an opportunity for children to recognize the goodness of humanity — the helpers and heroes who will inevitably surface.
Just like adults, children can feel helpless in the aftermath of a disaster. Doing something proactive and uplifting can be beneficial on many levels. Whether it’s directly helping people affected by tragedy or finding a meaningful way to get involved in the local community, contributing and connecting on a higher level help build resilience and inspire generosity in our children.
If you need additional support to help you and your family deal with grief, loss or other traumatic events, reach out to your physician or any of the numerous mental health professionals in our community. Helpful resources can also be found on the American Academy of Pediatrics parent website, HealthyChildren.org, and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network website, NCTSN.org.