Q&A: Helping children cope after traumatic eventsWritten by Focus on the Family
Question: How can I make sure that my children will recover from the emotional impact of disaster and trauma? I'm especially concerned about the long-term effects. Over the past month our community has been devastated by a terrible flood. The impact to my family has included the loss of our home, interruption of work and school, loss of income, physical deprivation, and overwhelming anxiety about the future. The immediate danger is past, but I realize that we're going to be coping with the emotional and psychological effects of this disaster for a long time to come. How can I help my kids get beyond this traumatic experience?
Our thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. It won’t be easy to pick your way through the aftermath of this heart-wrenching experience. But you can take an important first step in the right direction by making sure that your expectations are realistic.
Bear in mind that a disaster is a disaster. There’s no quick and simple way to recover from the wounds and losses you’ve sustained. It’s one thing to deal with the normal strains and stresses of life. But the very meaning of the word trauma can be summed up as “too much too quick.” So keep your head on straight and be patient with yourself. It’s going to take time, determination and perseverance to get past the pain and devastation that seem so paralyzing and all-encompassing at the present moment.
This is especially true where children are concerned. You have to be prepared for ups and downs and emotional setbacks. Meanwhile, there are some things you can do to help your kids face their immediate situation with courage and confidence:
- First, try to keep them in a routine as much as possible. Difficult as it may be under the circumstances, work to create an atmosphere of normalcy, balance and predictability. For example, take a walk every afternoon or share a story at bedtime every night. This will counteract feelings of confusion and disorientation. Help your children understand that you are there for them. Make a conscious effort to have fun together whenever you can.
- Let your kids know that it’s good to be honest about their feelings. Hurts are healed when emotions are aired and pain is squarely faced. Model this truth by facing your own pain and dealing with it in healthy, constructive ways with other adults or caregivers.
- Accept a child’s emotions as they are. Whatever reaction he may be experiencing is “normal” for him. Validate his feelings. Enter into them with him. Let him know that it’s healthy and normal to feel sad when bad things happen. Be aware that younger children may respond by acting out. Teens, on the other hand, may display a tendency to withdraw. Some teens may also act out by becoming involved in self-destructive behaviour (i.e. drugs, alcohol, rebellion). Be prepared for every eventuality.
- Don’t avoid discussing the tragedy, but don’t obsess over it either. Don’t overwhelm your children with a barrage of questions. They may find it easier to express themselves openly while sharing an activity with you side-by-side.
- If for some reason a child can’t talk freely with you about the disaster, encourage and enable him to talk to somebody else. Make sure that the somebody else is a safe, familiar person. Sharing feelings verbally is an important part of the healing process. Give your child opportunities to meet other kids who are going through the same thing. He needs to know that he’s not the only one who is suffering in this way.
- Help your kids explore non-verbal ways of processing the tragedy. This can be done through drawing, painting, games, drama, writing poetry or keeping a journal.
When tragedy strikes, parental guidance and input are crucial to a child’s recovery. Personality, age, and past experiences also play a vital role. You know your own children best. Observe their behaviour and moods carefully. Keep an eye out for any obvious signs of distress, insecurity and confusion. You can help bolster their sense of security and counterbalance negative emotions by adopting some of the following strategies:
- Children under five probably won’t understand the significance of this event. Sometime around age six, they begin to process some of the harsher realities of human life. With your help, they should learn the deeper meaning of these experiences. Make up your mind to “be there” for them when the time for such a discussion arrives.
- Be aware that trauma may cause your children to regress. It can even make them lose trust in you. These are normal reactions, so don’t take it personally. Be patient and give them space. Allow adequate time for healing. The more consistently their needs have been met in the past, the sooner they are likely to recover.
- Protect your kids from media overload. Read a book together instead of watching the evening news. The younger the child, the more damaging the exposure to graphic images will be.
- Tell your children that you love them. If these words are difficult to say, write them in a note. If you have little ones, spend time holding them. Allow them to experience the warmth and security of your touch.
- Assure your kids that trained people are on the job doing everything possible to fix the damage and meet the needs of the victims. Children find comfort in knowing that someone is in charge. Pray together for the families of the victims, the rescue and medical workers, civic and political leaders, and the military as they deal with the fallout of the flood.
- The more directly your children have been impacted, the greater the need for intervention. If after three months or so they still seem overwhelmed by the event, think about getting some help from a professional counsellor. Watch for signs such as sleep loss, nightmares, loss of appetite, long-term behavioural changes, withdrawal, disconnection, or emotional numbing. Focus on the Family Canada’s counsellors can help you locate a qualified Christian therapist practicing in your area.
- Create new dreams for the future. No matter how much pain your family has endured, you can still face tomorrow with a hopeful attitude if you take time to discuss and write down new goals that you can pursue together.
Feel free to contact Focus on the Family Canada’s counsellors if you think it might be helpful to discuss this situation with a member of our team. As noted above, our counsellors can help you get in touch with therapists practicing in your area. They would also be more than happy to discuss your concerns with you over the phone. To make an appointment to speak to a counsellor, please call 1.800.661.9800.
© 2011 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Adapted from the booklets, "Parenting in the Midst of Tragedy" and "Understanding and Coping with Trauma," published by Focus on the Family.
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