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Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters

Nicole Hiltibran December 14, 2018 Mass Violence

Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters: What Parents Can Do

Each year, children experience violence and disaster and face other traumas. Young people are injured, they see others harmed by violence, they suffer sexual abuse, and they lose loved ones or witness other tragic and shocking events. Parents and caregivers can help children overcome these experiences and start the process of recovery.

“Trauma” is often thought of as physical injuries. Psychological trauma is an emotionally painful, shocking, stressful, and sometimes life-threatening experience. It may or may not involve physical injuries, and can result from witnessing distressing events. Examples include a natural disaster, physical or sexual abuse, and terrorism.

Disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods can claim lives, destroy homes or whole communities, and cause serious physical and psychological injuries. Trauma can also be caused by acts of violence. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attack is one example. Mass shootings in schools or communities and physical or sexual assault are other examples. Traumatic events threaten our sense of safety.

Reactions (responses) to trauma can be immediate or delayed. Reactions to trauma differ in severity and cover a wide range of behaviors and responses. Children with existing mental health problems, past traumatic experiences, and/or limited family and social supports may be more reactive to trauma. Frequently experienced responses among children after trauma are loss of trust and a fear of the event happening again.

It’s important to remember:

  • Children’s reactions to trauma are strongly influenced by adults’ responses to trauma.
  • People from different cultures may have their own ways of reacting to trauma.

Commonly experienced responses to trauma among children:

Children age 5 and under may react in a number of ways including:

  • Showing signs of fear
  • Clinging to parent or caregiver
  • Crying or screaming
  • Whimpering or trembling
  • Moving aimlessly
  • Becoming immobile
  • Returning to behaviors common to being younger
  • Thumbsucking
  • Bedwetting
  • Being afraid of the dark.

Children age 6 to 11 may react by:

  • Isolating themselves
  • Becoming quiet around friends, family, and teachers
  • Having nightmares or other sleep problems
  • Refusing to go to bed
  • Becoming irritable or disruptive
  • Having outbursts of anger
  • Starting fights
  • Being unable to concentrate
  • Refusing to go to school
  • Complaining of physical problems
  • Developing unfounded fears
  • Becoming depressed
  • Expressing guilt over what happened
  • Feeling numb emotionally
  • Doing poorly with school and homework
  • Losing interest in fun activities.

Adolescents age 12 to 17 may react by:

  • Having flashbacks to the event (flashbacks are the mind reliving the event)
  • Having nightmares or other sleep problems
  • Avoiding reminders of the event
  • Using or abusing drugs, alcohol, or tobacco
  • Being disruptive, disrespectful, or behaving destructively
  • Having physical complaints
  • Feeling isolated or confused
  • Being depressed
  • Being angry
  • Losing interest in fun activities
  • Having suicidal thoughts.

Adolescents may feel guilty. They may feel guilt for not preventing injury or deaths. They also may have thoughts of revenge.

What can parents do to help?

After violence or disaster, parents and family members should identify and address their own feelings — this will allow them to help others. Explain to children what happened and let them know:

  • You love them
  • The event was not their fault
  • You will do your best to take care of them
  • It’s okay for them to feel upset.

Do:

  • Allow children to cry
  • Allow sadness
  • Let children talk about feelings
  • Let them write about feelings
  • Let them draw pictures about the event or their feelings.

Don’t:

  • Expect children to be brave or tough
  • Make children discuss the event before they are ready
  • Get angry if children show strong emotions
  • Get upset if they begin bedwetting, acting out, or thumbsucking.

Other tips:

  • If children have trouble sleeping give them extra attention, let them sleep with a light on, or let them sleep in your room (for a short time).
  • Try to keep normal routines, for example, reading bedtime stories, eating dinner together, watching TV together, reading books, exercising, or playing games. If you can’t keep normal routines, make new ones together.
  • Help children feel in control when possible by letting them choose meals, pick out clothes, or make some decisions for themselves.

Help for all people in the first days and weeks

There are steps adults can take following a disaster that can help them cope, making it easier for them to provide better care for children. These include creating safe conditions, remaining calm and friendly, and connecting with others. Being sensitive to people under stress and respecting their decisions is important.

When possible, help people:

  • Get food
  • Get a safe place to live
  • Get help from a doctor or nurse if hurt
  • Contact loved ones or friends
  • Keep children with parents or relatives
  • Understand what happened
  • Understand what is being done
  • Know where to get help.

Don’t:

  • Force people to tell their stories
  • Probe for personal details
  • Say things like “everything will be OK,” or “at least you survived”
  • Say what you think people should feel or how people should have acted
  • Say people suffered because they deserved it
  • Be negative about available help
  • Make promises that you can’t keep such as “you will go home soon.”

More about trauma stress

Some children will have prolonged mental health problems after a traumatic event. These may include grief, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some trauma survivors get better with some support. Others may need prolonged care from a mental health professional. If after a month in a safe environment children are not able to perform normal routines or new behavioral or emotional problems develop, then contact a health professional.

Trauma resources

Access to disaster help and resources:
Website: http://www.disasterassistance.gov

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Website: http://emergency.cdc.gov/mentalhealth

Federal Emergency Management Agency
Phone: 1-800-480-2520
Website: http://www.ready.gov/kids

National Center for PTSD
Website: http://www.ptsd.va.gov

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
Website: http://www.nctsn.org

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Disaster Distress Helpline

Phone: 1-800-985-5990
Website: http://www.disasterdistress.samhsa.gov

Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences
Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
National Institutes of Health
NIH Publication No. 15–3518

For more information on coping with violence and disasters, please visit MFT Continuing Education

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