School Violence Resources for Parents
- Tips For Talking To Children And Youth After Traumatic Events
- Coping With Traumatic Stress Reactions
- Resources from American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry
- Facts for Families: Children & Grief
- Facts for Families: Post-Traumatic Stress
- Understanding Violent Behavior in Children and Adolescents
- Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration
- Disaster Stress Helpline 1-800-985-5990. It's Free. It's Confidential.
Tips For Talking To Children And Youth After Traumatic Events
Traumatic events, such as shootings, bombings, or other violent acts, can leave children feeling frightened, confused, and insecure.
Whether a child has personally experienced trauma, has seen the event on television, or has merely heard it discussed by adults, it is important for parents and educators to be informed and ready to help if stress reactions begin to occur.
Children respond to trauma in many different ways. Some may have reactions very soon after the event; others may do fine for weeks or months, and then begin to show troubling behavior. Knowing the signs that are common at different ages can help parents and teachers recognize problems and respond appropriately.
Children ages 1-5 find it particularly hard to adjust to change and loss. These youngsters have not yet developed their own coping skills, so they must depend on parents, family members, and teachers to help them through difficult times.
Very young children may regress to an earlier behavioral stage after a violent or traumatic event. Preschoolers may resume thumbsucking or bedwetting, or may become afraid of strangers, animals, darkness, or "monsters." They may cling to a parent or teacher, or become very attached to a place where they feel safe.
Changes in eating and sleeping habits are common, as are unexplainable aches and pains. Other symptoms to watch for are disobedience, hyperactivity, speech difficulties, and aggressive or withdrawn behavior. Preschoolers may tell exaggerated stories about the traumatic event or may refer to it repeatedly.
Children ages 5-11 may have some of the same reactions that younger children have. They also may withdraw from playgroups and friends, compete more for the attention of parents, fear going to school, allow school performance to drop, become aggressive, or find it hard to concentrate. These children also may return to more childish behaviors, such as asking to be fed or dressed.
Children ages 12-14 are likely to have vague physical complaints when under stress, and may abandon chores, school work, or other responsibilities they previously handled. Though they may compete vigorously for attention from parents and teachers, they also may withdraw, resist authority, become disruptive at home or in the classroom, or begin to experiment with high-risk behaviors such as alcohol or drug use.
These young people are at a developmental stage in which the opinions of others are very important. They need to be thought of as "normal" by their friends and are less concerned about relating well with adults or participating in family activities they once enjoyed.
In later adolescence, teens may experience feelings of helplessness and guilt because they are unable to assume full adult responsibilities as the community responds to the traumatic event. Older teens may deny the extent of their reactions to the traumatic event.
How to Help
Reassurance is the key to helping children through a traumatic time. Very young children need a lot of cuddling, as well as verbal support. Answer questions about the event honestly, but do not dwell on frightening details or allow the subject to dominate family or classroom time indefinitely. Encourage children of all ages to express emotions through conversation, writing, or artwork and to find a way to help others who were affected by the event.
Try to maintain a normal household or classroom routine, and encourage children to participate in recreational activity. Temporarily reduce your expectations about performance in school or at home, perhaps by substituting less demanding responsibilities for normal chores.
Acknowledge that you, too, may have reactions associated with the traumatic event, and take steps to promote your own physical and emotional healing.
Tips for Talking to Children After a Traumatic Event
- Provide children with opportunities to talk about what they are seeing on television and to ask questions.
- Do not be afraid to admit that you cannot answer all of their questions.
- Answer questions at a level the child can understand.
- Provide ongoing opportunities for children to talk. They probably will have more questions as time goes on.
- Use this as an opportunity to establish a family emergency plan. Feeling that there is something you can do may be very comforting to both children and adults.
- Allow children to discuss other fears and concerns about unrelated issues. This is a good opportunity to explore these issues also.
- Monitor children's television watching. Some parents may wish to limit their child's exposure to graphic or troubling scenes. To the extent possible, be present when your child is watching news coverage of the event. It is at these times that questions might arise.
- Help children understand that there are no bad emotions and that a wide range of reactions is normal. Encourage children to express their feelings to adults (including teachers and parents) who can help them understand their sometimes strong and troubling emotions.
- Be careful not to scapegoat or generalize about any particular cultural or ethnic group. Try not to focus on blame.
- In addition to the tragic things they see, help children identify good things, such as heroic actions, families who unite and share support, and the assistance offered by people throughout the community.
When Talking Isn't Enough
For some children, more active interventions may be required, particularly if they were more directly affected by the traumatic event.
- The family, as a unit, might consider counseling. Traumatic events often reawaken a child's fear of loss of parents (frequently a child's greatest fear) at a time when parents may be preoccupied with their own practical and emotional difficulties.
- Families may choose to permit temporary regressive behavior. Several arrangements may help children separate gradually after the agreed-upon time limit: spending extra time with parents immediately before bedtime, leaving the child's bedroom door slightly ajar, and using a nightlight.
- Many parents have their own fears of leaving a child alone after a traumatic event or other fears they may be unable to acknowledge. Parents often are more able to seek help on the children's behalf and may, in fact, use the children's problems as a way of asking for help for themselves and other family members.
- Teachers also can help children with art and play activities, as well as by encouraging group discussions in the classroom and informational presentations about the traumatic event.
Note: Some of the information in this article was gathered from a brochure developed by Project Heartland -- a project of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services in response to the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Project Heartland was developed with funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in consultation with the Federal Center for Mental Health Services.
Coping With Traumatic Stress Reactions
The Importance of Active Coping
When veterans take direct action to cope with their stress reactions and trauma-related problems, they put themselves in a position of power. Active coping makes you begin to feel less helpless.
- Active coping means recognizing and accepting the impact of trauma on your life and taking direct action to improve things.
- Active coping occurs even when there is no crisis; coping is an attitude and a habit that must be strengthened.
Understanding the Recovery Process
Knowing how recovery happens puts you in more control of the recovery process.
- Recovery is an ongoing, daily, gradual process. It is not a matter of suddenly being cured.
- Some amount of continued reaction to the traumatic event(s) is normal and reflects a normal body and mind. Healing doesn't mean forgetting traumatic war experiences or having no emotional pain when thinking about them.
- Healing may mean fewer symptoms, symptoms that are less disturbing, greater confidence in your ability to cope with your memories and reactions, or an improved ability to manage your emotions.
Coping with Traumatic Stress Reactions: Behaviors that DON'T Help
These are behaviors you should not use to cope.
- Using drugs and alcohol to reduce anxiety, relax, stop thinking about war experiences, or go to sleep. Alcohol and drug use cause more problems than they cure.
- Keeping away from other people. Social isolation means loss of support, friendship, and closeness with others, and more time to worry or feel hopeless and alone.
- Dropping out of pleasurable or recreational activities. This leads to fewer opportunities to feel good and feel a sense of achievement.
- Using anger to control others. Anger helps keep other people away. Anger may keep bad emotions away temporarily, but it also keeps away positive connections and help from loved ones.
- Trying to constantly avoid people, places, or thoughts that are reminders of the traumatic event. Avoiding thoughts about the trauma or treatment doesn't keep away distress, and it prevents you from making progress on coping with stress reactions.
- Working all the time to try to avoid distressing memories of the trauma (the workaholic).
There are many ways you can cope with posttraumatic stress. Here are some things you can do if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Unwanted distressing memories, images, or thoughts
- Remind yourself that they are just that, memories.
- Remind yourself that it's natural to have some memories of the traumatic event(s).
- Talk about them to someone you trust.
- Remember that, although reminders of trauma can feel overwhelming, they often lessen with time.
- Sudden feelings of anxiety or panic
These are a common part of traumatic stress reactions and include sensations of your heart pounding and feeling lightheaded or spacey (usually caused by rapid breathing). If this happens, remember that:
- These reactions are not dangerous. If you had them while exercising, they probably would not worry you.
- It is the addition of inaccurate frightening thoughts (e.g., I'm going to die, I'm having a heart attack, I will lose control) that makes them especially upsetting. Slowing down your breathing may help.
- The sensations will pass soon and you can go about your business after they decrease.
Each time you think in these positive ways about your arousal/anxious reactions, you will be working toward making them happen less frequently. Practice will make it easier to cope.
- Feeling like the trauma is happening again (flashbacks)
- Keep your eyes open. Look around you and notice where you are.
- Talk to yourself. Remind yourself where you are, what year you're in, and that you are safe. The trauma happened in the past, and you are in the present.
- Get up and move around. Have a drink of water and wash your hands.
- Call someone you trust and tell them what is happening.
- Remind yourself that this is a common traumatic stress reaction.
- Tell your counselor or doctor about the flashback(s).
- Trauma-related dreams and nightmares
- If you awaken from a nightmare in a panic, remind yourself that you are reacting to a dream and that's why you are anxious/aroused,not because there is real danger now.
- Consider getting up out of bed, regrouping, and orienting yourself.
- Engage in a pleasant, calming activity (e.g., listen to soothing music).
- Talk to someone if possible.
- Talk to your doctor about your nightmares; certain medications can be helpful.
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Keep to a regular bedtime schedule.
- Avoid strenuous exercise for the few hours just before going to bed.
- Avoid using your sleeping area for anything other than sleeping or sexual intimacies.
- Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine. These harm your ability to sleep.
- Do not lie in bed thinking or worrying. Get up and enjoy something soothing or pleasant; read a calming book, drink a glass of warm milk, or do a quiet hobby.
- Irritability, anger, and rage
- Take a time out to cool off or think things over. Walk away from the situation.
- Get in the habit of exercising daily. Exercise reduces body tension and helps get the anger out in a positive and productive way.
- Remember that staying angry doesn't work. It actually increases your stress and can cause health problems.
- Talk to your counselor or doctor about your anger. Take classes in anger management.
- If you blow up at family members or friends, find time as soon as you can to talk to them about it. Let them know how you feel and what you are doing to cope with your reactions.
- Difficulty concentrating
- Slow down. Give yourself time to focus on what it is you need to learn or do.
- Write things down. Making to do lists may be helpful.
- Break tasks down into small do-able chunks.
- Plan a realistic number of events or tasks for each day.
- You may be depressed; many people who are depressed have trouble concentrating. Again, this is something you can discuss with your counselor, doctor, or someone close to you.
- Having difficulty feeling or expressing positive emotions
- Remember that this is a common reaction to trauma, that you are not doing this on purpose, and that you should not feel guilty for something you do not want to happen and cannot control.
- Make sure to regularly participate in activities that you enjoy or used to enjoy. Sometimes, these activities can rekindle feelings of pleasure.
- Take steps to communicate your caring to loved ones in little ways: write a card, leave a small gift, or phone someone and say hello.
A Final Word
Experiment with these ways of coping to find which ones are helpful to you. Practice them; like other skills, they work better with practice. Talk to your counselor or doctor about them. Reach out to people that can help,in the VA, Vet Centers, your family, and your community. You're not alone.
Source: National Center for PTSD, 2007.