Helping Your Child Cope with Violence and Disasters
Each year, children experience violence and disaster and face other traumas. Young people are injured, they see others harmed by violence, they suffer sexual abuse, and they lose loved ones or witness other tragic and shocking events. Parents and caregivers can help children overcome these experiences and start the process of recovery.
What is trauma?
“Trauma” is often thought of as physical injuries. Psychological trauma is an emotionally painful, shocking, stressful, and sometimes life-threatening experience. It may or may not involve physical injuries and can result from witnessing distressing events. Examples include a natural disaster, physical or sexual abuse, and terrorism.
Disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods can claim lives, destroy homes or whole communities, and cause serious physical and psychological injuries. Trauma can also be caused by acts of violence. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attack is one example. Mass shootings in schools or communities and physical or sexual assault are other examples. Traumatic events threaten our sense of safety.
Reactions (responses) to trauma can be immediate or delayed. Reactions to trauma differ in severity and cover a wide range of behaviors and responses. Children with existing mental health problems, past traumatic experiences, and/or limited family and social supports may be more reactive to trauma. Frequently experienced responses among children after trauma are loss of trust and a fear of the event happening again.
It’s important to remember:
- Children’s reactions to trauma are strongly influenced by adults’ responses to trauma.
- People from different cultures may have their own ways of reacting to trauma.
Commonly experienced responses to trauma among children:
Children age 5 and under may react in a number of ways including:
- Showing signs of fear
- Clinging to parent or caregiver
- Crying or screaming
- Whimpering or trembling
- Moving aimlessly
- Becoming immobile
- Returning to behaviors common to being younger
- Being afraid of the dark.
Children age 6 to 11 may react by:
- Isolating themselves
- Becoming quiet around friends, family, and teachers
- Having nightmares or other sleep problems
- Refusing to go to bed
- Becoming irritable or disruptive
- Having outbursts of anger
- Starting fights
- Being unable to concentrate
- Refusing to go to school
- Complaining of physical problems
- Developing unfounded fears
- Becoming depressed
- Expressing guilt over what happened
- Feeling numb emotionally
- Doing poorly with school and homework
- Losing interest in fun activities.
Adolescents age 12 to 17 may react by:
- Having flashbacks to the event (flashbacks are the mind reliving the event)
- Having nightmares or other sleep problems
- Avoiding reminders of the event
- Using or abusing drugs, alcohol, or tobacco
- Being disruptive, disrespectful, or behaving destructively
- Having physical complaints
- Feeling isolated or confused
- Being depressed
- Being angry
- Losing interest in fun activities
- Having suicidal thoughts.
Adolescents may feel guilty. They may feel guilt for not preventing injury or deaths. They also may have thoughts of revenge.
What can parents do to help?
After violence or disaster, parents and family members should identify and address their own feelings — this will allow them to help others. Explain to children what happened and let them know:
- You love them
- The event was not their fault
- You will do your best to take care of them
- It’s okay for them to feel upset.
- Allow children to cry
- Allow sadness
- Let children talk about feelings
- Let them write about feelings
- Let them draw pictures about the event or their feelings.
- Expect children to be brave or tough
- Make children discuss the event before they are ready
- Get angry if children show strong emotions
- Get upset if they begin bedwetting, acting out, or thumbsucking.
- If children have trouble sleeping give them extra attention, let them sleep with a light on, or let them sleep in your room (for a short time).
- Try to keep normal routines, for example, reading bedtime stories, eating dinner together, watching TV together, reading books, exercising, or playing games. If you can’t keep normal routines, make new ones together.
- Help children feel in control when possible by letting them choose meals, pick out clothes, or make some decisions for themselves.
Source: Information adapted from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) open licence.