Helping Children Cope with Traumatic Events

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Being involved in the COVID-19 pandemic, a serious accident, violent crime, terrorist attack, or natural disaster, such as an earthquake or hurricane, can be overwhelmingly stressful for children. A disaster, crisis, or other troubling event can cause traumatic stress, undermine your child’s sense of security, and leave them feeling helpless and vulnerable—especially if the event stemmed from an act of violence, such as a mass shooting or terrorist attack. Even kids or teens not directly affected by a disaster can become traumatized when repeatedly exposed to horrific images of the event on the news or social media.

Traumatic

Whether your child lived through the disturbing event itself, witnessed it, or experienced traumatic stress in the aftermath, they’re likely to be affected by an array of intense, confusing, and frightening emotions. While unpleasant symptoms may fade over time, there’s plenty you can do as a parent or guardian to support and reassure a traumatized child. Using these coping tips, you can help your child manage symptoms of traumatic stress, rebuild their sense of safety, and move on from the traumatic event.

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Signs and symptoms of traumatic stress in kids and teens

Traumatic stress is a normal reaction to a natural or manmade disaster or other disturbing event. It can leave children of any age feeling overwhelmed by stress and trigger a wide range of intense emotions and physical or behavioral reactions. These in turn can affect your child’s mood, appetite, sleep, and overall well-being.

Signs of Trauma in Kids and Teens
Infants under age 2 may:
  • Fuss more or be harder to soothe
  • Exhibit changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • Appear withdrawn
Children age 2 to 5 may:
  • Show signs of fear
  • Cling to parent or caregiver more
  • Cry, scream, or whine
  • Move aimlessly or freeze up
  • Regress to earlier childhood behaviors, such as thumb sucking or bedwetting
Children age 6 to 11 may:
  • Lose interest in friends, family, or activities they used to enjoy
  • Experience nightmares or other sleep problems
  • Become moody, disruptive, or angry
  • Struggle with school and homework
  • Complain of physical problems such as headaches or stomachaches
  • Develop unfounded fears
  • Feel depressed, emotionally numb, or guilty over what happened
Adolescents age 12 to 17 may:
  • Have flashbacks to the event, suffer from nightmares or other sleep problems
  • Avoid reminders of the event
  • Abuse alcohol, drugs, or nicotine products
  • Act disruptive, disrespectful, or aggressive
  • Complain of physical ailments
  • Feel isolated, guilty, or depressed
  • Lose interest in hobbies and interests
  • Have suicidal thoughts

Whatever the age of your child, it’s important to offer extra reassurance and support following a traumatic event. With your love and guidance, the unsettling thoughts and feelings of traumatic stress can start to fade and your child’s life can return to normal in the days or weeks following the crisis or disturbing event.

Helping your child cope with a disaster or traumatic event

Your child’s reaction to a disaster or traumatic event can be greatly influenced by your own response. Children of all ages—even independence-seeking teenagers—look to their parents for comfort and reassurance at times of crisis. If you experienced the traumatic event alongside your child, it’s crucial to take steps to cope with your own traumatic stress. Even young infants can pick up on their parents’ anxiety and stress. By taking care of your own emotional health and well-being, you’ll be more of a calming influence and better able to help your child. Since the childhood impulse to imitate is strong, if your child sees you taking steps to cope with the effects of the trauma, they’re likely to follow.

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Remember that children react to trauma in different ways. And their feelings can come and go in waves. Your child may be moody and withdrawn at certain times, frozen with grief and fear at other times. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to feel after a traumatic event so don’t try to dictate what your child should be thinking or feeling.

Encourage your child to openly share their feelings. Let them know that whatever feelings they’re experiencing are normal. Even unpleasant feelings will pass if your child opens up about them. While many teens may be reluctant to talk about their feelings with a parent, encourage them to confide in another trusted adult such as a family friend, relative, teacher, or religious figure. It’s important to talk—even if it’s not with you.

Allow them to grieve any losses. Give your child time to heal and to mourn any losses they may have experienced as a result of the disaster or traumatic event. That could be the loss of a friend, relative, pet, home, or simply the way their life used to be.

Discourage your child from obsessively reliving the traumatic event. Continually dwelling on or replaying footage of the event can overwhelm your child’s nervous system. Encourage activities that keep your child’s mind occupied so they’re not solely focusing on the traumatic event. You could read to your child, play games together, or simply watch an uplifting movie.

De-stress as a family. Even young children can use simple breathing exercises to relieve stress and feel more at ease in the world, while older kids may be able to master other relaxation techniques.