TALLAHASSEE — Children can start showing signs of trauma right away or months after a disastrous event. Just hearing about an event on the news or seeing a reaction from parents is enough to have an effect on kids.
You might not have spoken to your kids over the weekend about the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, but it is possible they heard something at school and might have questions for you about it.
Jennifer Evans, a licensed mental health counselor and traumatologist at the Department of Children and Families who specializes in compassion fatigue, offers these signs to look for in your children and ways you can comfort your child during this time.
• Be clear: Talking about tragedy and death can be very difficult for anyone. Being clear and only answering what the child is asking will help them to understand without getting into too much graphic detail. Try using dialogue like, “When people die, their bodies stop working.”
• Be available: Let your kids ask the questions. Start by asking them, “What do you think happened?” Allow them to guide the conversation where they need to go to help them cope.
• Stay calm: Children learn emotional reactions and coping through adults. The way adults react to events is often the way the child perceives and reacts to the event. It is OK to cry and show concern and emotion, and then to show appropriate ways to cope and heal. Try using dialogue like, “It is OK to feel confused and hurt. Sometimes people cry to show how sad they are. This allows their body to feel better.”
• Normalize their feelings: When a tragedy happens it can be confusing, and often, kids are uncertain of the emotions they are feeling. Use this opportunity to discuss emotions and the way kids are feeling and explain how you can cope. Try using dialogue like, “Often people feel sad when something like this happens. It is hard to understand why someone would do something like this.”
• Understand how children cope: You might see your child try to act out the traumatic event through their dolls or other toys. This can be scary for a parent to see, but kids will often replay the event as a way to cope. You can use this opportunity to discuss their play and their memory of the event.
This is a great time to clarify and normalize their reaction again. Try doing an activity to help provide closure for your child. Ask your child if they would like to say or do anything to help the families who have experienced this tragedy. They might want to write a letter or a card to the school or the families to say they are sorry and offer words of hope and encouragement.
• Notice changes in behavior: Often, the effect of trauma on your body does not happen until weeks after the event. This is a normal process of coping. If your child’s behavior dramatically changes for an extended amount of time, consult a professional. Common symptoms of trauma include sleeplessness, over/under eating, extended sadness for no immediate explanation, extended traumatic play, lack of focus/concentration and nightmares.
We are all keeping the victims in our thoughts and prayers. The national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides more information about coping strategies and how children and adults are affected by and react to tragedy. We encourage you to visit www.samhsa.gov/trauma for resources about how to help your friends and family during this time.