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What to expect at this age
When disaster strikes, it can affect children profoundly. It doesn't matter whether the event is natural (a flood or a fire) or man-made (a school shooting or a riot) – it undermines a child's deep need to see the world as a safe and predictable place.
A grade-schooler may have a range of reactions. If he's not directly affected by the event, and he hasn't been exposed to repeated television images of disaster or a lot of scary talk on the school playground, a young grade-schooler may be relatively oblivious. A second- or third-grader, however, may be surprisingly tuned in. He may have questions – or he may not. Children dealing with other traumas at the same time, such as a divorce or a death in the family, are more likely to suffer anxiety. But even if everything else in his life is fine, your grade-schooler may glean enough information to become worried and fearful. He may whine or cling more, have bad dreams at night, or complain about stomachaches. Or he may lose concentration at school or in sports. One of the best things you can do to quell anxiety is to limit your child's exposure to scary and repeated images on TV and online. Repetitive newscasts increase a child's stress and may even confuse him into thinking that a single disaster happened over and over again.
Give him lots of hugs and cuddling. Encourage him to sleep with a favorite stuffed animal if he wants to, even if he hasn't wanted his teddy bear in bed with him for the past two years. Watch for nonverbal signs of anxiety, such as disrupted sleep patterns, angry or sad drawings, or unusually withdrawn or aggressive play with other children.
"The peak years of vulnerability from trauma are ages 6 to about 10," says James Garbarino, co-director of the Family Life Development Center at Cornell University and the author of Parents Under Siege. "That's when children have more independent access to information, because they're out of the home and in school. Also, the simple reassurances that work for very young children are transparent to an older child. Finally, their brains aren't physically mature enough yet to understand or manage arousal and fear." A young grade-schooler is old enough to understand that death is permanent, for instance, but not old enough to feel confident that even though he just heard about a terrible bus accident in another state, his own school bus is safe.
"After a disaster, one of the greatest losses – other than loss of life – is loss of control," says Bev Clayton, a social worker and disaster services associate at the American Red Cross National Headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia. "Children have almost no control over their lives, and when they see that their parents don't have any, either, it becomes incredibly frightening to them. So parents, even if they're upset, need to show some element of control." The most important place to exert control is over your daily household routines. Go to the park as usual, put your child to bed on time, don't skip meals, and make sure his caregivers are also following the normal order of the day. "You want to make sure your child feels secure, and routines do that," says Clayton.
How to talk about it
Be brief and reassuring. A grade-schooler may ask a question that seems only tangentially related to the specific disaster, such as "What happens when we die?" You can use his question as a springboard to talk about death, but in this case his underlying concern is really, "Am I safe?" Reassure him that he's in no danger, and that you and the rest of the family are safe too. "We're all okay, and we're going to be okay" are important words for him to hear.
Validate his feelings. Resist the urge to say, "Don't be sad/mad/worried." (Do you feel any better when someone says this to you?) His feelings are real and he needs to be able to express them. Instead, you can say, "I know you might feel worried because you've heard so much about that bad flood. Luckily we don't get floods here, and no water can come up to our house."
Use the event to teach empathy and tolerance. A child may have heard that a terrorist attack was prompted by "bad people getting mad." Remind him that people shouldn't use violence to express anger. "Everybody gets mad sometimes, but we try not to hurt other people. We try to use words to work out our problems."
Tell him adults are working to keep him safe. As adults, it's sometimes hard to be reassuring in the face of our own anxieties about flying, or even living in earthquake territory. But you can tell your child (and remind yourself) that lots of people are working to keep him safe, from the President to the police to you, his own parents. A disaster may prompt a child this age to lose some confidence in the abilities of the adults around him, but you can tell him, "I look out for you whenever I know there's danger. Sometimes we learn about new dangers, so we start to look out for you in those situations too."
Remember that he may not understand as much as he seems to. Grade-schoolers often appear to be more sophisticated than they really are. "If he sees pictures of bombs falling in Kabul, a child living in a desert community – say, in Arizona – might not entirely understand that the TV and online images are of Afghanistan, a long way away from his home," says Garbarino. Try to gently probe his understanding of current events so you can clear up any misconceptions.
Use plenty of nonverbal reassurance. Some of your best clues about your child's anxiety level will come out nonverbally – through play, sleeping and eating patterns, and whether or not he becomes whiny or clingy or regresses in other ways. It's important to respond to him nonverbally as well. If he seems worried, give him extra hugs and kisses. Above all, try to stick to normal routines to bolster his sense of security in his familiar daily life.
Help him take concrete action. For many children and adults, responding concretely to a disaster helps lessen anxiety. Your grade-schooler may want to sell lemonade and send the proceeds to the Red Cross, contribute to a food drive, or send a letter of thanks to firefighters and police forces. These actions can be extremely therapeutic, according to Flemming Graae, director of child and adolescent psychiatry services at New York Presbyterian Hospital in White Plains, New York. "They help kids develop a sense of belonging to a community beyond their immediate surroundings, identify in good ways with people they've never met, and develop a sense of empathy. There are important developmental positives in translating kids' anxiety into good deeds."
Have confidence in your ability to help. As the parent, you have the challenge of helping your child feel secure when you may be feeling insecure yourself. Remember that limiting the focus on repetitive and scary news reports, sticking to comforting routines, and finding concrete ways to help victims will reassure you as well as your child. And when you help yourself cope with trauma, you're helping your grade-schooler as well. "Kids are wonderfully resilient," says Graae. "With good support, most children will do fine."
What kids ask ... what parents answer
"What happened?" Like adults, many grade-schoolers, especially older ones, want information so that they can understand and feel more control over a scary situation. Give your child the basic facts: "Someone who really didn't like that politician shot him. That's called an assassination." Ask if he has any questions. The older he is, the more details he'll ask for. Keep your answers honest but to the point.
"Could this happen to me?" In the face of disaster, children of all ages worry about immediate risk to themselves and their loved ones. Similar questions could include, "If there are bad guys, would they shoot kids?" "You don't have to go and fight them, right?" "Are Grandma and Grandpa okay?" Assure your child that these kinds of tragedies are very rare. "No, these kinds of things don't happen very often – that's why they make the headlines when they do. Bad guys don't think much about you or other kids. And I'm staying here with – our lives aren't going to change. Grandma and Grandpa are fine too. They live far away from where the bad things are happening. Do you want to call them on the phone right now and say hi?"
"Why didn't people make the buildings stronger, so they wouldn't fall down?" Your grade-schooler may be angry that neither he nor the adults around him could stop a disaster, whether it was an act of terrorism or the result of an earthquake. "We all wish we could have done something to prevent this tragedy," you can tell him. "And now lots of people are helping those who were hurt, and figuring out ways to keep this from happening again."
"Whose fault is it?" Children, like adults, may want to find someone to blame, whether it's God or a terrorist. Let your child know it's normal to feel angry, but also teach him not to stereotype. "The people who crashed the plane don't think like everybody else – not even like everyone else in their own country. Here in our country, we're all trying to join together to help each other, not blame each other."
"Are there monsters under my bed?" Youngsters who've heard about upsetting events may become newly afraid of strangers, monsters, darkness, or other unknowns. After all, these phantoms are easier to contemplate than the concepts of terrorism or natural disaster. Reassure your child about his stated fear: "No, there are no monsters under your bed or anywhere else. Let's go look together so you can remember that monsters aren't real." You don't need to explain anything about real-world "monsters." Your child just wants you to reassure him that he'll be safe in his own bed tonight.