Children of all ages may have strong reactions to traumatic events such as shootings, fires, plane crashes or other violent crimes. Even children who are generally happy and well-adjusted may find such tragedies confusing or frightening, whether they have been directly involved or have heard about them from their friends or the media.
Because traumatic events are part of life, you can't protect children from ever hearing about them. But you can take steps to help them manage their feelings. These steps include understanding their fears, offering reassurance and providing routines to help them feel loved and secure.
Understanding your child's fears
After a traumatic event, children may have many of the same fears as adults. For example, many young children have trouble telling the difference between fantasy and reality. So even if they hear that firefighters put out a serious fire, they may think it could start up again. Or they may believe an event that occurred long ago or far away actually happened recently and close to home.
The importance of security and routines
Children always benefit from having a strong sense of security that includes predictable routines. These routines are especially important after a traumatic event, when you'll need to do as much as you can to reduce disruptions and reassure your child. It's a good idea to do the following:
- Reassure your child that you are there to protect him or her, and that your family is safe.
- Provide extra physical reassurance. Hugging, sitting close to read a book and giving backrubs can help restore a child's sense of safety.
- Give your child a comforting toy or something of yours to keep — a scarf, a photograph or a note from you. Your child may be afraid of separating from you, and keeping a reminder of you close by can help.
- Be available as much as you can. Provide time to talk and comfort your child.
- Let your child know that any interruptions in his or her routine are only temporary. You may need to repeat this many times to a preschooler or other young child.
Helping your child
You can comfort and reassure your child by communicating openly and sensitively about what happened.
- Ask your child what he or she thinks has happened. If there are any misconceptions, now is a chance to clear them up. If your child knows upsetting details that are true, don't deny them. Instead, listen closely and talk about your child's fears.
- Help your child talk about the event. Try to listen carefully and understand what he or she really wants to say. Help younger children use words like "angry" and "sad" for their feelings.
- Be aware of your own reaction to a traumatic event. Younger children may be unsettled by a parent's strong reaction to a traumatic event. Remember that children often pick up on nonverbal behavior.
- Be patient when your child asks the same question many times. Asking the same question over and over is one way that children test what they have heard to find out if it's really true. Try to be consistent with answers and information.
- Ask your child to draw pictures of what happened, and talk about the pictures. Drawing pictures can be a good way to help children express feelings that are hard to describe.
- Encourage a young child to act out his or her feelings with toys or puppets. Don't be alarmed if he or she expresses angry or violent emotions. Instead, use play-acting to begin a conversation about your child's worries and fears.
- Be honest about your own feelings, but talk with other adults if you feel very anxious and afraid of how you'll cope.
- Consider your child's age and maturity in making decisions about media exposure. It's generally best to shield very young children from graphic details and pictures in the media, because they may not understand these and feel more afraid if they see them.
- Watch the news with older children. In most families, it isn't realistic to shield older children and teenagers from the news. Even if you turn off the television, they may hear the news from friends or read about it on the Internet. It's usually more practical to watch the news with them, talk about what you see and reassure them that you will protect them.
Here are some common reactions associated with traumatic events and ways to help your child deal with them:
- Regressing. Many children may try to return to an earlier stage when they felt safer and more cared for. Younger children may wet the bed or want a bottle; older children may fear being alone or start using "baby talk." It's important to be patient and comforting if your child responds this way.
- Thinking the event is their fault. Younger children tend to think that if something goes wrong, it must be their fault — no matter how irrational this may sound to an adult. Be sure to tell children they are not to blame.
- Developing sleep disorders. Some children have difficulty going to sleep while others wake frequently or have troubling dreams. If you can, give your child a stuffed animal, soft blanket or flashlight to take to bed. Try spending extra time together in the evening, doing quiet activities or reading.
- Feeling helpless. Powerlessness is painful for both adults and children. You and your family may feel more hope and control if you take steps to help people who have suffered because of an event — for example, by taking up a collection, organizing a fundraiser or donating helpful items to a family in need after a trauma.
If your child's fears continue
Sometimes a child's fears last long after a traumatic event or interfere with the enjoyment of everyday life. You may need professional support to help him or her feel better. Talk with a doctor or helping professional if your child exhibits the following symptoms that don't go away after a number of weeks:
- Troubled sleep or frequent nightmares
- Bedwetting (that was not seen previously)
- Fear of going to school, going outside or being left alone
- Thumb sucking, nail biting (that was not seen previously)
- Unusual quietness, unresponsiveness, or tiredness
- Unusual agitation or aggression
- Excessive clinging
Military OneSource and the Military and Family Life Counselor Program provide confidential non-medical counseling services and are great resources for professional support to help your child work through fear. For access to Military OneSource confidential non-medical counseling, call 800-342-9647 or go online. For counseling services with a military family life counselor, contact your installation's military and family support center.