During and after a crisis, children may feel vulnerable and overwhelmed by the situation. To restore a sense of safety and security, the pediatric psychiatry experts at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital encourage families return to a normal routine at home and at school as soon as possible after a crisis. Engage in calming activities together as a family and offer physical comforts such as blankets and/or stuffed animals.
Children will look to the adults around them to learn how to cope with difficult events. Acknowledge that adults also experience distress, but that there are effective ways to help us all cope and feel better. Open a dialogue with your child and present information about the situation in a way that the child can process and cope. Older children, teens and young adults may ask more questions and benefit from more information than younger children, but regardless of age keep the conversation open and straightforward.
Managing the Media
Today the media constantly surround us, from our television to our smartphones and tablets to the newspaper display at the supermarket. While these are great tools for keeping us connected to world and local events, often during times of crisis the provided information is too intense and violent for children to handle. This may result in increased fear and trauma. Though you can’t completely shield your child from media outlets, you can be aware of what is there and prepare to discuss it with your child.
Even young children will hear about traumatic events, so it’s important to try to discuss these situations before they hear about it from a source that may be upsetting or is less than reliable. Start by asking what they might have heard about the situation and then determine how to proceed from there. Be sure to use age-appropriate language and only share as much information as they are developmentally able to handle, without being too vague. If you don’t provide enough specific information, a child may not be able to determine why this particular event is different from people getting hurt any other day. Above all, the main message to convey is that the things your child is feeling are normal and that you are there to support each other.
When traumatic events are carried out by individuals or a group of individuals (for example, a school shooting or terrorist attack), anger is often part of a normal response. However, there is a significant risk of stigmatizing those who resemble the perpetrators based on their race, language, religion, or the way they dress. Take care to teach children not to judge entire groups of people by the actions of a few. Through your words and behavior, model compassion towards others and acceptance of differences.
Helping Kids Cope
Encouraging children to express their feelings and concerns and to ask questions is of the utmost importance when helping them process and cope with traumatic events. When discussing the experience, allow children to identify their fears and needs by asking open-ended questions and practicing active listening. Let them know that their feelings and reactions are normal and expected and that others (both children and adults) are experiencing similar worries and concerns.
Children who have difficulty verbally expressing their emotions may benefit from writing or drawing pictures about the experience to communicate their thoughts and feelings. Many children may also find it beneficial to the healing process to get involved in activities relating to the event such as attending memorial ceremonies or donating to relief charities.
Children with Special Needs
As with any child, it is helpful to start by asking what they already know or have heard to get a sense of their level of understanding. When discussing traumatic events, it is crucial that you use language that the child can comprehend. Give consideration to your child’s individual needs, developmental level and emotional maturity.
When to Seek Help
If children don’t have the chance to practice healthy coping, or if they are struggling to cope after a crisis, they may start to show symptoms such as:
- Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, difficulty waking, nightmares or other sleep issues
- Lack or change of appetite
- Physical complaints such as headache, stomachache or feeling tired
- Changes in behavior such as social regression, acting more immature, or becoming demanding or clingy
- Common childhood fears may reappear or intensify
Considering reaching out to a mental health provider if these symptoms do no resolve over time or if there are significant emotional or behavioral changes.
The Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital Pediatric Psychiatry Program treats children and teens with a variety of mental health problems, including ADHD, anxiety, depression, psychoses, eating disorders and behavioral problems. Services include new patient evaluation, medication management, and psychotherapeutic evaluation and management.