Explaining Catastrophic Events

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Q: What can parents tell a child who knows someone affected by the attacks -- for example, a classmate whose parent is missing or injured?

A: This is clearly a delicate situation that can cause what is called "secondary trauma" to the child. But it can also give parents and children a chance to find positive coping strategies. For example, parents and their children can help another family by providing cooked meals, transportation, and babysitting. Children can provide play time and companionship to friends, and older children can offer emotional support by being there to talk with their peers. However, these older children will then need a chance to debrief by talking about their own feelings with you.

Q: How do kids typically respond to such national tragedies?

A: That depends on the age of the child, any emotional challenges or assets she may have, and her degree of exposure to the trauma, among other things. The general rule of thumb is that children who experience trauma or overwhelming stress are likely to deviate from their regular patterns of behavior. Symptoms that children -- and adults -- may show include:

  • Intense emotional reactions, including irritability, crying, or fearfulness.
  • Intrusive thoughts related to the event -- that is, they can't get certain images or ideas out of their minds.
  • Strained interpersonal relations, including arguments or withdrawal.
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, or dizziness.

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