Supporting kids after trauma

By Lizzi Kampf

As adults, we often face a variety of difficult emotions in the face of tragedy. The impact of a traumatic event can be substantial, whether it’s a natural disaster such as a hurricane or tornado, one that is man-made as we saw last week with the horrific mass shooting in Connecticut, or even one that is within a family, such as a car accident or the sudden death of a loved one. Our strong emotional reactions stem from an assault on our basic sense of safety and security. Children can experience these same emotions; however, their young brains aren’t yet fully developed and able to process them in the same way.

Many children express symptoms and feelings of helplessness and fear following a traumatic event. They may become unusually quiet, have problems sleeping, or be weary of separating from caregivers. They may react with agitation, or be unusually restless or aggressive. They may voice more worries or concerns about their own health, the health of others, and their general safety. Some children regress to behaviors they haven’t had since early childhood, such as sucking their thumb, wetting their bed, or baby talk. The good news is that children are naturally resilient and tend to return to whatever level of functioning they were at prior to the event.

Here are some things parents can do to support their children following a traumatic event:

  • Children live their lives through play. Utilize dolls, drawing, or role-playing games to help them express themselves and talk about what happened. Most kids want to talk about what they’ve experienced. Sometimes scary events need to be played out to be worked through. It helps them process what has occurred and use problem-solving skills.
  • Allow your children space to talk about their feelings. They may need to express their fears multiple times and be reassured of their safety frequently. Validate the feelings they are having and assure them that it is “normal” to feel the way they do.
  • Maintain as much structure and daily routine as possible. It can be difficult if your home is unlivable, you have to attend a funeral, or general daily life is disrupted. As much as possible, do the things your family enjoyed prior to the event, such as particular bedtime routines. Children also still need to have rules and discipline; this gives them a sense of order in the chaos.
  • Stay in check of your own reactions. It’s okay for children to witness parents having their own emotions, but they also need to hear an adult talk about how they manage those emotions. Model good self care for your child, making sure to take care of your own physical and mental health.

If you or your child is struggling following a tragedy and feel you need additional assistance, seek professional help through local crisis resources, a mental health counselor, or your doctor.

Lizzi Kampf is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker who works primarily in the Emergency Department on the St. Paul campus of Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. She is also a volunteer with the Red Cross and recently returned from a deployment to New Jersey. As part of the Disaster Mental Health team, she worked to provide brief therapeutic services to individuals and families who had been affected by Superstorm Sandy. 

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