Helping children cope with traumatic events

The entire nation is mourning together with the citizens of Newtown Connecticut after the traumatic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Our hearts, thoughts and prayers are with the victims, families, teachers and the entire community of Newtown. At JF&CS, we remember and honor the lives lost this past Friday and the reports of the heroism of so many.

In light of this tragic and devastating event, it can be difficult for parents and adults to process their own feelings, and to address children’s questions and concerns in a constructive and reassuring way. Frightening disasters and events, both natural and man-made, are an unfortunate reality in our world. Adults and children alike can have strong emotional reactions to crises, even if they have only experienced them through television or the internet. Following the basic guidelines below can help you and your loved ones cope when a traumatic event occurs.

Make Sure That You Are OkayStay connected in your community to friends, family, synagogue or church and other community resources. If you find that you are having trouble functioning or that you are feeling or responding more intensely than you think you should, contact Squirrel Hill Psychological Services for assistance at (412) 521-3800 or visit www.squirrelhillpsych.org.

Make Sure That Your Children Are Okay Find age-appropriate ways to address feelings and approach conversations about traumatic events with children.

0-5 year olds

  • Young children will be fine as long as the adults in their lives (parents, teachers) are calm and reassuring.
  • Unless a child of this age asks about the event, feel free not to discuss it.
  • If you want to listen to news retrospectives or discuss the traumatic event with your spouse or another adult, do so when the children are in bed.
  • If the event has ended, pay special attention to children. Hold their hands, take a walk, and look at the trees and the grass. Make a special day of thanks for our being alive!

6-11 year olds

  • Simple and clear information is appropriate as long as it can be presented in a calm, reasonable manner.
  • Limit exposure to media, and particularly avoid frightening images or accounts of the event.
  • Reassure children that they will be safe and protected at home and at school.
  • Hear children’s ideas, thoughts and feelings about what happened, what was done, and future directions for the community and country.
  • Praise children for their interest and empathize with their feelings.
  • Keep calm and do not share adult fears, anger and sadness. Share those feelings with other adults; present a sense of calm reassurance to children.

12-18 year olds

  • Children of this age enjoy intellectual challenge and debate. Make this an educational opportunity. Discuss issues related to security and freedom.
  • Encourage logical, open discussions of the crisis.
  • Listen to the child’s account of past events and help clear up misperceptions.
  • Respect their opinion but support a logical, problem solving approach. Point out the fallacies of impulsive thoughts and action.
  • Be available! If the child seems anxious or depressed by the event, empathize, take a walk or take time to reflect. Be together.

“At most ages, it is appropriate to talk with children about what they may already know when a traumatic event has occurred,” said Barbara Wollman, licensed clinical social worker and therapist at Squirrel Hill Psychological Services. “Try not to assume that they don’t know what is going on. Even younger children may have heard about the event itself, or snippets, through peers at school or from overhearing the news or conversations between adults.”

For more than 30 years, Barbara has been providing psychotherapy services, and she evaluates and treats children and adolescents ranging in age from three to 18 years. Barbara works individually with children and also together with parents and siblings to help resolve family issues including concerns about school, depression, developmental difficulties, behavior problems, family crises and traumatic events.

She advises parents that when talking about traumatic events with children to be honest about their feelings if asked, but to make sure the conversation stays child-centric.

“Parents should listen to what children have to say about traumatic events while being honest, but brief, in sharing your own feelings. The goal of the conversation is to help the child express his or her feelings about the event,” Barbara said. “Adults should be aware of their tone of voice, facial expressions and body language. If a parent or adult is showing signs of being extremely tense or stressed, a child will pick up on those feelings. Remain neutral and have a calm conversation that addresses the child’s concerns and reassures the child that they are in a safe environment.”

For parents, this particular event can be difficult to come to terms with. Barbara advises building a support system of spouses, friends, extended family members and the community to help aid discussions and to process feelings.

“It’s completely normal and healthy for parents to have feelings and emotions about traumatic events, but make sure to take a moment to appreciate that your children are here with you and that they’re safe,” she said.

At Squirrel Hill Psychological Services, we’re here to help. If you would like to discuss the reactions that you or a family member is experiencing in the aftermath of recent events, or for additional counseling or therapeutic needs, please contact Squirrel Hill Psychological Services at (412) 521-3800 or visit www.squirrelhillpsych.org.

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