~ Helping Children Cope with Tragedy ~
We tend to think of trauma and tragedy occurring
from disastrous events large enough to make the news such as the Septemer
11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.
There are other types of tragedy, the natural disasters—earthquakes, fires,
floods, hurricanes and the unexpected disasters—plane crashes, train derailments,
automobile accidents. Yet these large tragedies are only a small percentage
of the many tragedies that can affect children's lives. There are also
the human random acts of violence—bombings, mass shootings or gang warfare
and unfortunately the not so human acts of violence—shootings, stabbings,
murder etc. Each year many children and young adults sustain both physical
and emotional injuries from tragedies. They may lose friends, teachers,
or family members in accidents or tragic events. In today's society exposure
to violence can occur in the home or on the streets where children live
and play. Research is demonstrating that children who witness violence
in their families, schools, or communities are also vulnerable to serious
long-term emotional harm.
Children, especially the young, have a sixth sense
that enables them to sense an adult's fear and anxiety. As adults struggle
to deal with their responses and grief, they must remember that children
and adolescents will turn to them for help, answers and guidance. Children
learn their responses to loss and how they will cope from their family.
Parents and teachers can help children and young adults avoid or overcome
emotional reactions that may result following a tragedy by creating and
open environment, being there ready to listen and answer questions and
providing support. How a parent or other adult react to a child following
a loss, death or any traumatic event can aid (or hinder) in his/her recovery
Children and adolescents are at risk to experience
fear and anxiety as reactions to tragic events. Following a disaster the
child's view of the world as a safe and predictable place is temporarily
lost. They may fear that another event is likely to occur and that they
or their family will be injured or killed. It helps to remind children
that they are safe. Parents, teachers, caregivers, other adult family members
can reassure children that they are safe and that the adults around them
are doing everything they can to keep the children safe.
Research has shown that children and adults alike
who experience catastrophic events either in person or watching on television
may demonstrate a wide range of reactions. Much depends of the type of
event viewed. Many will experience fear and anxiety. Some may only worry
or have bad memories of the event that will fade with emotional support
and the passage of time. Others can be more deeply affected and experience
long-term problems. The reactions common in children—fear, depression,
withdrawal, anger, acting out—can occur immediately following the event,
or sometime after the tragedy.
Especially for children fear is a normal reaction
to a scary event—real or imaginary; fear is an intense concern or worry
caused by real and/or imagined danger. Children with vivid imaginations
and sensitive children are even more prone to experiencing intense fear
reactions. Children younger than five years old cannot always distinguish
fantasy from reality. Media and cinematic depictions of attacks and tragedies
can be as frightening as the real events. Limiting media exposure in this
age group is important.
Some children will demonstrate fear by developing
physical symptoms—stomachaches, headaches, feeling "sick," or complaining
of a lump in the throat—some through their behavior—crying, abnormal fussiness
or agitation, not necessarily using words. Children may become fearful
about being left alone. They may also demonstrate regression and begin
acting younger than their age. Common behaviors for a younger child may
reappear in an older child including bedwetting, thumb sucking, clinging
to parents and fear of strangers. A child may experience problems at bedtime.
He/she may start having nightmares, not wanting to sleep alone, becoming
more afraid of the dark, falling asleep or remaining asleep. In addition
children can experience difficulty thinking and concentrating. They can
become easily distracted easily, feel confused and disoriented and often
find it difficult to stay focused. Many reactions can be triggered by smells,
objects or activities that are associated with the trauma. Frequently a
child is unaware of the triggers and of the behavioral changes that occur.
Adolescents in particular are impacted by tragic
events. Those who have started demonstrating some independence may shift
and want to spend more time with their families. They may also be fatigued,
have problems with sleep disturbances and show a lack of interest in favorite
activities. It is important to be aware that adolescents may turn to illicit
substances—drugs or alcohol as a way of coping with their intense emotions.
For the children who have lost parents in this
tragedy we are fortunate to have the resource A Letter
to the Youngest Victims of the Terrorist Attack, written by a child
survivor of another national tragedy.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent
Psychiatry. Fast Fact # 8. Children and Grief. Updated November 1998. Available
at: http://www.aacap.org/publications/factsfam/grief.htm .
National Mental Health Association.
Helping Children Cope With Loss. 2001. Available at: http://www.nmha.org/reassurance/childcoping.cfm .
Doka KJ, ed. Living with Grief:
Children, Adolescents, and Loss. Washington D.C.: Hospice Foundation of
American Academy of Child and Adolescent
Psychiatry. Fast Fact # 36. Helping Children After a Disaster. Updated
March 2000. Available at: http://www.aacap.org/publications/factsfam/disaster.htm .
National Institute of Mental Health.
Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters. Available
Bless the beasts and
For this world can never
be the world they see...
Light their way when the
darkness surrounds them
Give them love,
let it shine all around them.