I'm okay. You're okay. Helping your child cope with disturbing events

By Dr. Batya L. Ludman, Psy.D., FT · Published January 4, 2013

Twelve years ago, toward the beginning of the 2nd Intifada, I woke up one morning and asked my husband if he had read anything about helping kids cope with what was going on. His "no" response led me to jump out of bed, take pen in hand and write what was to become the creation of this psychology column. After all, I thought, someone had to be there for our kids, when we adults were doing all we could do to hold it together.

Now, hundreds of columns later, as we have recently witnessed rocket fire, terrorism, war, violence, and some natural, and not so natural, disasters both here in Israel and abroad, I can't help but once again reflect on the impact of all of these tragedies on our children. Feeling confused, anxious and frightened, our children look to us for reassurance that all is okay. Our job becomes one of quickly assessing the situation and then reassuring them that they will be safe and that all is, or will be, okay in their little world.

One thing that those of us who spend a lot of time working with grief and loss know is that people are surprisingly resilient and, left alone or given minimal help, most bounce back quickly after a traumatic event. Symptoms of distress reflect our body's normal response to a very abnormal situation. These symptoms may appear strange and unsettling but they are actually a gift. If you were to put your hand on a hot stove and didn't feel anything, you might burn yourself. Similarly if we listen to them, these symptoms of stress serve to protect us. These reactions may be physical (such as dizziness or increase in heart rate), cognitive (difficulty concentrating or making a decision), behavioral (withdrawal or regression) or emotional (shock, sadness). They may come and go or linger, making one feel miserable and as though they are going "crazy". While perfectly normal, to someone who doesn't understand what is going on, they feel scary and downright "yucky." Children can have a wide array of symptoms of stress but because they have a less well developed nervous system and often have immature language skills, may find it harder to integrate and "make sense" out of what they are feeling. Using modalities other than language, such as through art or play, may enable children to more readily express their concerns. By educating them as to what they may feel they will be more aware of what to expect and will ultimately cope better.

What can you do when there has been a traumatic event?

Talk to your child and explain what has happened in simple, easily understood, age-appropriate language. Give them the necessary information but not more than they need or ask for. Take the time to find out what your child's understanding of the situation is and validate his concerns so you can address the real issues. What truly bothers him may be different from what you imagine. Each child will have his own concerns and these will be influenced by developmental stage, personality, previous history and exposure to trauma and loss.

Here are a few questions to help get you started with your child:

"What concerns you the most? What is your biggest fear/worry? What do you notice in your body when you get worried? What helps you? If anything could be possible, name one thing that you would like to happen? If you could change one thing, what would it be? Where and what makes you feel safe? Can you close your eyes and imagine it?" These are important questions for helping empower your child to move from being afraid to feeling strong and able to cope.

What are your child's strengths? What resources does he have, or can get through others, that will be helpful? Can you make a list of these with your child? What things can he do to calm himself when he is worried?

It is important to talk with your children and equally important to listen. We grieve and feel with our entire body. Help them understand what they are feeling. Teach your children to listen to, and make sense out of, what their body tells them. Animal research has shown us that it isn't always enough just to talk about what worries us. We know for example, when we're scared our heart may pound faster. By learning proper breathing, we can slow our heart rate and feel better. If our tummy feels like it is tied up in a knot, focusing on loosening the knot relieves the pain. Children may have seen animals shiver and shake after they have confronted danger and run off calmly afterwards. As children learn self soothing techniques, they too can feel safer and more confident in handling an unfamiliar situation. These skills can be used daily whenever a child feels he "needs" them.

During stressful periods, make sure your child eats well, gets enough rest and gets plenty of physical exercise. Turn off the television as visual exposure can easily re-traumatize a child. Prolonged or repeated exposure to stress can put us at greater risk. Play, relaxation activities and encouraging normal routine are all essential to help a child feel in control.

Each person's perception of trauma is unique. Two children sitting next to each other may experience the same situation differently and will react accordingly. Give your child time to work through his concerns, but if you see ongoing signs of distress such as disrupted sleep, eating problems, mood or behavioral changes, regression or unhappiness, make sure you seek professional help.

Children take their cues from us. The best way to help your child is to be a good role model and to be there for them. Sometimes this may be difficult. Remember, the best way to help your child is to first help yourself. If you're okay, they will be okay.