In today’s society, we are plugged into every media outlet there is. What we adults may not think about is that our children are also plugged in, through us. From the war, to politics, to everyday misgivings, children are exposed to more than their little psyches can handle. These types of events can lead to traumatic experiences in children that can often be exhibited either physically or mentally.
According to the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), there are two types of trauma: physical and mental. Physical trauma includes the body’s response to serious injury or threat and mental trauma includes frightening thoughts and painful feelings.
Often children are exposed to a traumatic event indirectly; through adult conversations, the news channel, the Internet, the radio, or older siblings. In these cases, children may experience mental trauma and so it is important to recognize when children are feeling such trauma.
The NIMH identified several behavioral characteristics to look for in young children (these behaviors occur as a typical response to trauma; individual differences and abilities should be considered).
- Unexplained clinginess
- Intense fear or helplessness
- Sleep disturbances
- Unexplained crying
- Regression in behaviors such as bedwetting, thumb sucking or being afraid of the dark or being alone
When a traumatic event occurs, it’s important to remember that children feed off of adults’ reactions so the more calm the adult can remain the better it is for children. In addition, behaviors may come about quickly after the event or may not rear its ugly head until weeks later. Regardless, as the adult it is of significant importance to talk to the child, let them know they are loved, that it is okay to be upset and certainly okay to cry, and that as the adult you are there to protect them as much as possible.
Let children talk about their feelings, draw and write about them; children at a young age are struggling to make sense of the event and need every opportunity to express themselves. When children are showing signs of the above mentioned behaviors you may need to give the child additional attention, not get upset and maintain as much normalcy as possible. The NIMH has developed these suggestions:
If children have trouble sleeping:
- Give them extra attention
- Let them sleep with a light on
- Let them sleep in your room (for a short time)
Try to keep normal routines (such routines may not be normal for some children):
- Bed-time stories
- Eating dinner together
- Watching TV together
- Reading books, exercising, playing games
- If you can’t keep normal routines, make new ones together
Help children feel in control:
- Let them choose meals, if possible
- Let them pick out clothes, if possible
- Let them make some decisions for themselves, when possible
For more information please visit:
- The National Institute for Mental Health www.nimh.nih.gov,
- The Center for Mental Health Services Emergency Services and Disaster Relief Branch mentalhealth.samhsa.gov,
- National Resource Center for Child Traumatic Stress Network Duke University www.nctsn.org