HELPING KIDS COPE WITH TRAUMATIC EVENTS
Strategies to help your child after witnessing a trauma
WE are more informed now than ever about events happening locally and worldwide. This includes traumatic and tragic events like natural disasters, accidents and terrorist attacks. It’s frightening and anger-inducing. It can be difficult to cope, even for adults - and it can be just as tough for children. When children learn about world events, they’re doing so with a brain that is still developing. Children often piece together snippets of information and form their own conclusion. From there, they make interpretations about the world, others and themselves. This can be very different to what we interpret. Younger children may not have the language skills to fully understand what is happening, but they pick up on the emotions of those around them.
HERE’S A FEW TIPS FOR HELPING KIDS COPE WITH TRAUMATIC EVENTS: 1. Keep the graphic images to a minimum.
Images can be traumatic and they get stuck in our minds where they are replayed over and over. News outlets often recycle footage and from the child’s perspective it can seem as though the traumatic event
is happening again. If the adults in the home wish to read articles with images or watch the news, it’s best to do so when children aren’t around.
2. Maintain your usual routine as much as possible.
Our daily routines provide comfort and stability, which is much needed in times of intense stress and trauma. Of course, some things may change e.g. visiting injured friends in hospital or supporting their families. Where possible, when helping kids cope with traumatic events, maintain the everyday familiar activities like going to cricket practice or reading a book before bedtime.
3. Remember self-care.
It is very common for sleep to become disrupted and appetites to go down. Where possible, try to help everyone keep eating a healthy diet, drinking water, doing some form of movement for stress management (even if it’s going for a short stroll) and getting to bed at the usual time.
4. Be curious. Allow your kids to come to you with questions.
This will give insight into how kids are coping with traumatic events and what they make of everything that’s happening. While children often show tremendous empathy and kindness towards others in need, they don’t necessarily have the capacity for self-regulation and rational thinking. Understandably, children can develop fears about getting hurt or losing loved ones and they’re not always able to work through these fears themselves.
5. Be honest, but not too honest.
Our relationship with our kids is one of confident leadership. Our children don’t need to hear our deepest and darkest worries, nor do they need to hear our vengeful rants about certain sections of the population (that’s what partners and best friends are for). What you can be honest about, are the feelings that you’re experiencing, like worry, anger and being helpful? What are the healthy ways you cope with them?
6. It’s OK to not have the answers.
Why do bad things happen? Why do people do bad things? Why do innocent people get hurt? These are good questions your kids may ask. Take this time to share your philosophical beliefs and the thoughts that you find comforting during times of stress. Your shared feelings will help kids cope with traumatic events.
7. Focus on the helpers.
In the words of Fred Rogers: ‘When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping”. In times of crisis, we can find people who do kind, noble and heroic acts for others. Focusing on the helpers can provide reassurance that people are good-hearted and will work together to take care of one another. Older children may show interest in being part of the support team. Helping others improves mental wellbeing and can buffer troubling emotions like fear and anger. For their own safety, ensure that children provide support through an organised service, with a level of involvement that is developmentally appropriate for them.
8. After a crisis event, there is a psychological ‘recovery period’.
This can take a couple of weeks. While helping kids cope with traumatic events during the recovery period, it is common for children to have difficulties sleeping, nightmares, to seem fearful or extra ‘clingy’ or to exhibit behaviours that are more typical of a younger child. If your child is showing extreme levels of distress or their distress seems prolonged, please contact your doctor.
Dr Ash Nayate is a clinical neuropsychologist specializing in brain function and resulting behaviour. Ash has almost 15 years’ experience working with children and families, supporting them to feel happier, more confident and resilient. To contact Ash please visit her website.