Soothing children in a scary world
These are frightening times for adults, and undoubtedly even more unsettling for our children. Our national and local news was filled with details of the recent shooting in Aurora, Colo., and the child sexual abuse at Penn State, in addition to many other disturbing stories.
Even if we keep our kids away from the Ts news, their daily Internet use will expose them to graphic visual images and horrific stories that will leave an indelible imprint upon young minds.
For those children with anxious tendencies, learning about these events can lead to the development or intensification of symptoms that can be disruptive to their daily life.
There are specific guidelines that will help parents deal with their children effectively in the face of traumatic events.
Children will look to their parents for cues on how they should be responding to a crisis in the world around them.
If a parent seems anxious, particularly about appearing in a public place, children are much more likely to be frightened about this as well.
It is critical for parents to convey stability and calmness in relation to the event that has occurred. Keeping a child’s routine as normal as possible provides a sense of predictability and consistency, which will help to decrease their anxiety.
Pa ren ts should also be more available to their children both physically and emotionally in the aftermath of a widely publicized traumatic event.
Exposure to the media should be limited, because when children continue to see coverage of a crisis, they can perceive it as happening again and may begin to identify with the victims.
Too much news coverage can also be anxiety- provoking and trau- matizing for adults too, so parents should limit their own exposure as well to stay calmer for their children.
Parents also need to be prepared for the many questions that their children may ask in the face of a crisis.
It is important that parents allow their child to lead the way, as specific concerns may vary according to a child’s developmental stage.
Younger children may not be able to express their worries in words, but may incorporate the “Batman movie” incident, for example, into their free play or drawings. This allows a parent to ask questions and make comments about the characters in a child’s play, which can be a less threatening way of understanding and reassuring a child’s concerns.
For older children with more cognitive maturity, a parent can discuss the slim probability of such events, and help the child mobilize other defense mechanisms, such as distraction and rational self- talk, to prevent worries from infiltrating the child’s daily functioning.
Parents should consider seeking professional help if their child’s baseline level of functioning changes significantly over a long period of time. School refusal, clinginess, loss of concentration, physical complaints and behavior problems that are not typical for a child may be red flags that professional consultation may be warranted.
For additional information on helping children deal with traumatic events, there are excellent fact sheets available in the “Facts for Families” section of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry website.
Dr. Caryn Richfield is a clinical psychologist practicing in Plymouth Meeting. She can be reached at 610- 2384450 or at drcrichfield@ aol. com.
Coping Dr. Caryn Richfield