10 Tips for supporting young people through trauma and terrorist attacks
This week’s traumatic images and stories of pain and destruction, following the terrorist act in Christchurch New Zealand (not to mention other attacks, earthquakes, floods, cyclones and natural disasters elsewhere) can cause great concern in children. This occurs, not only for those directly affected, but children with a perceived threat of danger. In fact, for many children and teens, their imaginations (fuelled by media images) can magnify the events to even greater levels of terror.
Many parents, teachers, grandparents and carers become concerned about the emotional well-being of their children, and begin looking for advice on how to respond to questions from children and teens about the recent upsetting events.
The following ten tips are based upon Save the Children‘s years of experience (as well as other resources), and can be used as a guide for adults to support children and young people through crisis. The relevancy of different tips will vary depending upon a child’s temperament, previous experience, age and where he or she lives.
Children often ask the adults in their lives to explain what they have seen and to reassure them about what will happen next.
TEN tips on how to help kids cope with disaster:
- Turn off the news! Watching television reports or scrolling through images on social media may overwhelm children and teens. Young children may not understand that the video of an event is being replayed, and instead think the disaster is happening over and over again. Overexposure to coverage of the events affects teenagers and adults as well. Encourage screen limits, for a time, for both you and your children. (Also, don’t give the terrorists the airtime they crave. Process the information as you need to, but do your best to starve your news feed of the detailed stories, and begin again to focus on hope.)
- Listen to your children carefully, before responding. Get a clear picture of what it is that they understand and what is leading to their questions. Emotional stress results, in part, when a child cannot give meaning to dangerous experiences. Find out what he or she understands about what has happened. Their knowledge will be determined by their age and their previous exposure to such events. Begin a dialog to help them gain a basic understanding that is appropriate for their age and responds to their underlying concerns.
- Give children reassurance and psychological first-aid. Assure them about all that is being done to protect children and those directly affected by this crisis. Take this opportunity to let them know that if any emergency or crisis should occur, your primary concern will be their safety. Make sure they know they are being protected.
- Expect the unexpected. Not every child will experience these events in the same way. As children develop, their intellectual, physical and emotional capacities change. Younger children will depend largely on their parents to interpret events, while older children and teenagers will get information from a variety of sources which may not be as reliable. Older teenagers, because of their greater capacity for understanding, may be more affected by stories. While teenagers seem to have more adult capacities to recover as well, they still need extra love, understanding and support to process these events.
- Give your children extra time and attention. Parents, don’t underestimate the power of your own nurturing. Children need your close, personal involvement to comprehend that they are safe and secure. Talk, play, draw, hug and, most importantly, listen to them. Find time to engage in special activities for children of all ages. Read bedtime stories and sing songs to help younger children fall asleep.
- Be a model for your child. Your child will learn how to deal with these events by seeing how you deal with them. Base the amount of self-disclosure on the age and developmental level of each of your children. Explain your feelings but remember to do so calmly. Watch your own behavior. Make a point of showing sensitivity toward different countries and cultures affected by the disaster. This is an opportunity to teach your children that we are all part of one world and that we all need to help each other.
- Help your children return to normal activities. Children almost always benefit from activity, routine and sociability. Ensure that your child’s school environment is also returning to normal patterns and not spending great amounts of time discussing the crisis in unhelpful detail.
- Encourage your child to do volunteer work (where possible). Helping others can give your child a sense of control, security and empathy. Indeed, in the midst of crisis, adolescents and youth can emerge as active agents of positive change. Perhaps encourage your children to help support local charities that assist children in need?
- “Look for the helpers.” Despite the mass media attention to trauma and chaos, we need to remain mindful that there are often only a few evildoers involved in reprehensible incidents. The list of people willing to do good goes on and on, growing by the minute. We see it every time – people lined up, ready to do anything to help. Point them out to your children and teens – the local neighbours bringing food and making donations, the kind bus driver comforting a grandma, the police officers, anyone else you notice…
- Consider getting professional help. For children directly affected by this crisis (as well as children who have lost a loved one overseas) parents should consider counselling. Not just for the child, but also for the entire family. Other children (not directly involved) may also be affected by the images they see and stories they hear, which magnifies their anxiety. Children with a history of anxiety or depression seem to be at increased risk of stress, when they see bad news in the media. These kids need a little extra patience and reassurance from you. Perhaps consider asking a school counsellor to chat with your child once or twice in the following weeks.
Caring for survivors and their loved ones
After a few weeks have gone by and the news moves on, onlookers tend to get on with their own lives and expect that those affected by the trauma, ‘Should be over it by now’.
In fact, once the initial shock has passed and the reality has set in, it is at this time that nightmares, flashbacks and other symptoms of trauma can occur. This is the time to lean in and draw near.
Teachers and parents should be alert to any significant changes in eating habits, concentration, emotion/mood, sleeping patterns, sudden bed wetting, nightmares or frequent physical complaints without apparent illness. If present, these will likely subside within a short time, but without appropriate support and care they can become prolonged. I strongly encourage you to seek psychological support and counselling.
Your local Psychological Society or GP will also have further information.