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Assisting Children in Emotionally Overcoming Stress, Trauma, and Fear

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By Josh Lemon

“Bad things happen. As much as we might wish otherwise, close friends and relatives die, painful things happen to our bodies, there are natural disasters and war, and sometimes people do senselessly horrible things to other people.” – George Bonanno and Anthony Mancini.

The recent devastation of Hurricane Sandy crossed over 24 different states in the US alone. Damages to homes, businesses, and cities totaled over $65 billion. While natural disasters are fairly common across the country, this single hurricane left hundreds of thousands of families homeless and, in many cases, separated. Stories are still surfacing depicting the feelings of hopelessness and dread that parents felt as they lost contact with their children, the silence lasting for weeks in many instances. As cleanup commenced, parents across the country raised questions regarding the appropriate way to discuss this life altering disaster with their children and those they came in contact with.

The popular children’s television show, Sesame Street, was one of the first to respond. Elmo was sent onto “The Brian Lehrer Show” to provide a sense of comfort and hope. The show also released a series directed at helping children and parents through the emotional aftermath of natural disasters. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network provided simple activities and learning activities for parents to do with children as an educational tool to increase understanding and familiarity. FEMA and The Red Cross have also included sections on addressing the emotional impacts of natural disasters and reducing fear and trauma in these times.

While these resources have proven beneficial for many, the question at the forefront of each and every parents’ mind still concerns their own children and loved ones. What should parents do in the little time before a natural disaster strikes to prepare their children emotionally? And how do they properly work through the aftereffects of these disasters which then surface in the nightmares of their children? The following tips will help through this process with your own children before and after stressful and traumatic events.

Explain the Facts and Listen

Using language your child is able to comprehend, explain what is going on. This does not mean to recount every gruesome and horrific detail, but understanding what is happening, why it is happening, and where the next step is provides a base for children to grasp on to. Do not lie to your children. Once this has been established, be prepared for questions, fears, concerns, and for the consistent and constant repetition of these. To overcome traumatic events emotionally, your child must first come to understand and accept what it is. With age comes a quicker ability to comprehend and internalize.

Create a Positive and Open Environment

The way you respond to stress and trauma will show your children how they should respond. Maintain a sense of calm, no matter the circumstances. There will likely come a time when you are not able to portray this. When that time comes, fake it. Make sure they know you love them and that these circumstances are not their fault. Show them your love by being present and approachable. Focus on the blessings in your life. Recognize their fears and do all in your power to calm and comfort them. Children may show signs of trauma for years after an event and what you do or don’t do directly influences the time it takes for them to get through it.

Be Consistent and Adaptable

Children thrive in a scheduled environment. Younger children in particular should have set times throughout the day where specific events should happen; meal time, nap time, art time, play time, quiet time and so on. To the best of your ability, create a schedule that works for you and stick to it. The consistency provides a sense of safety and familiarity. It is likely that unforeseen events will arise that will interfere with this set schedule. Adapt to it, but be honest and open with your children along the way about what is happening to the schedule and why it needs to happen. This will decrease the time it takes for them to adjust to bumps in the road.

Recognize Changes in Behavior

Traumatic and stressful events tend to force children into a state of regression. Their behaviors may become more difficult and less characteristic of where they previously were. These responses are normal and will improve with time. Set firm limits and basic family rules. Spend time to understand and recognize what triggers your children and initiates the inappropriate behaviors. These are excellent moments for reassurance, learning, and improvement. Just as important, recognize what triggers you have as well so you are able to maintain your composure and consistency.

Spend Quality Time Together

You, as the parent, are the greatest sign of peace to your children. Spend time with them. Show them you can be happy through difficult times. Smile. Play age appropriate games together and invite conversation. Find activities that will steer their focus away from the stressful, frightening environment that may be ensuing around them. They will feel a sense of security and time will pass faster. This will also help create positive memories to take place of the negative ones which will help in future times of stress and fear.

It is important to remember that your children will all respond differently to the events at hand. What works for one will likely not work in the exact same manner for the next. It will take diligence on your part to ensure the proper emotional responses from your children by walking them through the darkness step by step. While you cannot remove your children from stressful and traumatic situations, you can provide them with an appropriate response in difficult times to lessen the impact and learn from the trials. Overcoming these hardships may be the end result, but the process of doing so is what children will remember and return to in times of need.


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