When disaster strikes, your first thought as a parent is of your children. Are they safe? Are they okay? The recent fires, mudslides and Borderline Bar and Grill shooting have impacted all of us. If you and your family have survived in good health, you probably feel a sense of gratitude. But these kinds of terrible events, especially close to where we live, can lead to a heightened sense of vulnerability. The work of moving past these traumatic events may not be over.
Young children, in particular, can have a difficult time understanding and processing traumatic events. They may feel scared, anxious, confused, or angry without the right words to articulate their emotions or the confidence to share them. As a parent, you can be a resource to your children as they work to emotionally heal after experiencing a frightening event.
How Does Trauma Affect Kids?
Short-term distress after a traumatic event is very normal. In fact, almost all kids and teens will exhibit reactions shaped by the trauma they’ve experienced. They may be responding to increased anxiety at home or school, even if they are not thinking about what occurred. You should look out for:
- Trouble concentrating
- Lack of interest in activities they used to enjoy
- Trouble sleeping or nightmares
- New fears
- Separation anxiety
While many children will have some short-term behavioral or mood changes after experiencing trauma, each child is different. Even if you are concerned your child’s response is disproportionate, it’s important to acknowledge that whatever he or she is feeling is legitimate. Every person’s coping style is unique, regardless of their age.
Tips for Parents of Children Affected by Trauma
As a parent, all you want is for your child is to be happy and healthy. It can be distressing to watch them emotionally struggle after they are affected—directly or indirectly—by traumatic events. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to help. Those include:
- Listen. It’s simple, but it’s powerful. Give your child the space to be open about what he or she is feeling and try to attentively listen without any judgement. You can work on helping them cope with any distressing thoughts later. The first step is creating an opportunity for your child to put those thoughts into words. Younger children will often incorporate these events into their play. Adolescents may shut down. Don’t push your child to “open up,” but be tuned in to when they may be open to sharing their feelings.
- Be honest. In the wake of a tragedy, it’s tempting to want to sugarcoat things for your child. Trust in you is one of the anchors that can help make difficult times easier. With media as easily accessible as it is today, your children may get too much of their view of reality online or from friends. With young children, it can be important to set limits on how much access they have to digital information. That can be difficult, but it’s always important that they are able to hear their parents’ perspective as well. Be truthful and be prepared to answer any questions they may have. For preschoolers, being reassuring is important (“We’re safe now and it’s going to be OK”). School aged children and adolescents require more direct answers (e.g. Yes, there is always a risk of another fire, but we’ve made our home more fire safe and have better plans on how to deal with an emergency”). And remember, “I don’t know” is always a fair response.
- Remember the power or family rituals. If you are displaced by the fire, it’s important to establish rituals of daily life that most resemble those before the fires. Family rituals—dinners, religious rituals, family gatherings, chores, and times for shared fun—are important to all children, not just those who have experienced difficult times. But for those impacted by these events, it’s ever more important. And don’t forget, giving your children the opportunity to help in any way they can builds a sense of confidence and responsibility.
Take Care of Yourself. Your kids will watch how you respond to tragedy. Acknowledge your emotions with your children, but keep calm, too. Make sure you’re practicing self-care and getting the support you need to be strong for yourself and your kids. Remember on airplanes you are always instructed to “put on your mask first before helping your child.” They need their parents to keep breathing to keep them safe.
How We Can Help
At Calabasas Behavioral Health and TMS Center we strive to be a resource for our community. We’re here to help you and your kids be as resilient as possible. We offer therapy (including family therapy), psychiatry, and groundbreaking transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) therapy to help all members of your family.
To learn more, please contact us today.