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Explaining Catastrophic Events

Explaining the Unimaginable
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At a time when many adults can't find words to describe the recent tragedies, talking about them with children can be especially difficult. For advice, Child spoke with a top expert, Richard A. Embry, Ph.D., assistant professor at Columbia University's School of Social Work in New York City.

Q: Can children develop post-traumatic stress disorder by watching a disaster unfold on TV and in newspapers?

A: Yes. While the media appear to be using good judgment about images that they are broadcasting, many of the images are quite stark and will be frightening and confusing to children. Parents should carefully monitor their children's exposure to media -- particularly TV and newspapers. Some experts recommend listening to the radio with children because it is not a visual medium.

At the same time, limited, carefully chosen TV viewing can provide families with an opportunity to discuss the recent events. Some experts believe that this family-based media exposure can help children understand the recent events in a more supportive, emotionally connected environment.

Q: Should parents reveal their own fear, worry, sadness, and other emotions to their kids?

A: This depends on the age of the child and degree of trauma that a parent is experiencing. Parents who are directly affected by the disasters may have a more limited capacity to control their emotions in front of their children.

For those parents not immediately affected by loss, sharing their emotions can provide important modeling for the expression of painful emotions. However, many younger children (ages 10 and younger) may find this parental display distressful. If children show signs of distress related to parental expression of emotions, parents should reassure their children that, despite their "upsetness," they are fully capable of caring for their kids and that "everything is going to be OK in our family."

Parents should not look to their children, however, as the primary people with whom to discuss their feelings. This should be done with family, friends, or professionals.

Q: How can parents in the New York City or Washington, DC, areas reassure their children?

A: This will be difficult, because we are all a bit shaken now. Parents can't deny the enormity of the recent events, particularly for those of us who live in the cities where they took place. They can, however, point out a few important facts:

  • Extreme acts of extreme terrorism are very rare in the United States.
  • Efforts are underway to catch the people connected with the terrorism.
  • Extra security measures are being taken to increase safety for all of us.

Parents can also assure their children that they are thinking about the family's safety.

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.

For most children, these reactions are temporary and respond very positively to parental interest, reassurance, and the opportunity to discuss thoughts and feelings. Parents should be mindful that children who are already struggling with depression or social alienation (particularly teenagers) may be more heavily affected. Their parents might want to talk to a mental heath professional about their child's needs.

Q: How should a parent respond if a child doesn't want her to go to work or take a plane?

A: In the short term, parents may decide to curtail travel or work because of the mental health needs of their children. If a child's fear persists, parents should consider talking to a professional.

Q: How should a parent answer a child's questions -- about, for example, how this could have happened or what will happen next -- when they don't know the answers themselves?

A: That depends on the age of the child, of course. It's perfectly okay for a parent to tell a child that we don't understand some things at this moment, but we will later. Keep reassuring your child that you are there and that everything will be all right in your family.

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Copyright © 2001. Reprinted with permission from Child magazine 2001.