by Kiaisha Barber, LCSW-C Program Director, School-Based Counseling at Tri County Youth Services Bureau
Talking with your kids following recent acts of violence, locally and nationally, can be difficult, unpleasant and downright scary for caretakers. This task may be worsened by parent’s own sense of fear and worry. Just turning on the news, glancing at your phone, or going to the store make it difficult to escape information regarding mass shootings at schools, murders/suicides in our community, and/or threats of violence against workplaces, schools, or public spaces.
Trauma is defined as a dangerous, frightening, and sometimes violent experience that is often sudden and is a normal reaction to an extreme event. Experiencing some form of stress following a traumatic event is very common, especially among children and adolescents.
What do you say—or not say? How do you know if your kids’ behaviors or feelings are normal? How do you know if YOUR behaviors or feelings are normal? While there’s no one approach that will be true for every parent, there are some things proven to help and some guidelines about typical behaviors for different aged children. There is also some guidance regarding behaviors that may be a sign that professional help may be needed.
TALK ABOUT IT . Often, the hardest thing is approaching the conversation with kids, however this is exactly what experts agree is one of the first things to do. Parents should start the conversation and provide children with opportunities to talk about what they are seeing and hearing on television and in their own social environments. Not discussing the event or events can suggest to children that it is too horrible to speak about or even that you do not know anything about what happened. If you’ve heard about it, you may be surprised at the young age of children who have also heard about violent events.
In the week following the recent school shooting in Southern Maryland, I met with a group of elementary aged children. All eight of the children ranging in age from first grade to 4th grade. All of them had heard about the shooting and talked about watching their teachers’ reactions during the school day as the event unfolded. They expressed great concern for the adults in their life and welcomed the opportunity to share what they had heard.
GENTLY OFFER FACTS AND CORRECT MISINFORMATION. Inevitably, there may be gossip and rumors surrounding events. Offer facts as you are aware of them and present the information in an age appropriate manner that children can understand. Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t have all the answers. You may share that you are worried yourself, but follow up quickly with some coping strategies such as focusing on the ‘helpers’ and heroic efforts of those responding to the event. It helps to see the good that is happening in the light of tragedy.
MONITOR OR LIMIT MEDIA EXPOSURE. Some content on television, internet, or social media sites can be disturbing to children, as well as adults. Limiting the time your child spends watching, surfing, or listening to information can be beneficial. If they are exposed to media outlets, try to be present so that you may address questions as they arise.
BE PATIENT. Some behaviors that are typical in the wake an act of violence that affects the community may be difficult to handle by caretakers. Feelings of sadness, grief, anxiety and anger are common among all youth.
Preschoolers and children in early childhood may regress in behaviors like thumb sucking, bedwetting, or wanted to be fed or dressed. They may be extra clingy to teachers or parents or other adults in their life. They may tell exaggerated stories about the event or have problems eating or sleeping. Some may exhibit more severe acting out or aggressive behaviors.
Adolescents may withdraw and act as if nothing is wrong. They may have trouble with concentration or completion of daily chores. Their attention spans be short (even shorter than usual) and their eating and sleep patterns may also be disrupted.
Given the different ways a traumatic event may affect your child, having a little extra patience will certainly go a long way.
TAKE TIME FOR YOURSELF AND IDENTIFY PERSONAL SUPPORTS. As a parent or caretaker, making sure you have appropriate outlets for stress, identifiable support for yourself, and access to reliable information are key factors in being able to provide safety and reassurance to your child.
WHEN TO SEEK ADDITIONAL HELP. If reactions to continue and continue to impact your child’s ability to function on a daily basis or you at any time feel as though you are overwhelmed with handling your child, extra help may be needed. Contact local mental health professionals with trauma experience. You may also seek referrals from your doctor or pediatrician. Parents are more likely to seek help for their children rather than themselves. Contacting a professional on behalf of your child can also be a gateway to obtaining help for yourself as well.
by Kiaisha Barber, LCSW-C at Tri-County Youth Services Bureau, 301-645-1837 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Talking to Your Child about the Shooting”, National Child Traumatic Stress Network, www.NCTSN.org
“Tips for Talking to Children and Youth After Traumatic Events” , US Dept. of Health and Human Services, www.samsha.gov
“Trauma: Facts for Families”, Children’s Mental Health Matters, www.ChildrensMentalHealthMatters.org