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Helping Kids Cope with Trauma and Stress

by Jamie Howard, PhD

Jamie Howard, PhD

Jamie M. Howard, PhD, is Child Mind Institute's Director of the Stress and Resilience Program; Clinical Psychologist, Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center. Dr. Howard has extensive experience providing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to children, teens, and young adults suffering from a range of anxiety disorders, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Read more »

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Whether it's a major traumatic event (a school shooting, a hurricane, or getting hurt in an accident) or chronic daily hassles (poor day care, poverty, test-taking or bickering between caregivers at home), kids can have a hard time coping with some of the challenges they face. When children feel overwhelmed and unable to manage situations, it can undermine their ability to do their jobs as kids. Their jobs, of course, are to go to school, concentrate, and learn to the best of their ability; to make and keep friends; and to discover what they enjoy and engage in the activities that are fun to them. It can be troubling for adults to see children struggle to manage situations that tax their ability to cope. The good news is that there are certain things that parents, teachers, and other important grownups can do to help kids cope with trauma and stress. Here are some ideas to help your family cope.

Start by taking good care of yourself. It's extremely painful for caregivers when children experience trauma and stress. Difficult life experiences affect whole families, not just isolated family members, and it's important to be aware of one's own reactions and need to cope. Just like flight attendants advise adult passengers to put on their own oxygen masks before assisting others, parents need to attend to their own physical and emotional needs to be able to best support their children. It is important for grownups to reduce vulnerability factors, like being sick, run down, tired, or hungry, by attending to their physical needs during and after a crisis. It's also important for adults to seek emotional support and comfort from other adults in their lives. This advice was especially important for the parents we worked with in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Parents and teachers had to manage their own heartbreak and fear, not to mention the stress of rebuilding their homes and getting their kids back in school, all while helping their children to cope and thrive despite the circumstances.

Talk to your kids. When a traumatic event happens, parents and trusted adults should be the ones to explain the situation to children, not the media or other children. Sometimes parents avoid having conversations with kids because they're worried they won't say the right thing, they won't know how to answer their questions, or they think their kids don't know about the event so they shouldn't bring it to their attention. We saw this firsthand after the Newtown shooting; parents were shocked and devastated, and they worried they would make their children more scared by talking about it. However, it's important for parents to presume that their children will hear about these types of events—on the TV at your local restaurant, overhearing conversations between adults at home and school, and talking with other children on the school bus. When talking about traumatic events, parents should be brief and honest, and explain safety in concrete terms. Give a little information and let your children ask for more details if they want them. Don't worry if you don't know the answer to a question; you can always say, "You know, that's a really good question, and I need to think about it and answer it for you later this afternoon." Focus on your children's feelings and reactions, rather than sharing your own. Be patient, and remember that kids take in a little bit at a time. By talking with children, you have a chance to correct inaccurate conclusions they might have drawn, e.g., the Newtown shootings happened on a Friday, so Fridays must be unsafe. For younger children, it can be comforting to pair conversations with a relaxing ritual, like reading a story together.

Reassure kids that they are safe. Kids sometimes need more reassurance than we realize, and it's best to err on the side of giving more than less. Be a role model and appear calm around your children, and vocalize positive thinking whenever possible, e.g., "All this rain makes me remember Hurricane Sandy, but I know that this is just a bad rainstorm, not another hurricane." Children pay close attention to the emotions and behaviors of the grownups in their lives, and they take their cues from them. This is called "social referencing," and it's important to keep in mind that kids use adults' reactions to gauge how scary a situation is.

Another part of providing reassurance is limiting media exposure. The sensational and repeated coverage can increase and maintain anxiety and a sense of danger for children. It's also important to maintain routines and expectations, even throughout traumatic and stressful periods. Predictability and structure provide children with a great deal of comfort.

Take action. Research in the field has produced two categories for classifying coping strategies: primary control coping and secondary control coping. Primary control coping includes actions taken to change the stressful situation. Some examples of this type of coping include calling 911 if there is a fire, telling a bully, "Stop it!" or participating in post-trauma recovery efforts, such as community cleanup. Secondary control coping involves actions taken to change one’s internal reaction to a stressful situation. Examples of secondary control coping include relaxation strategies, like deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation; positive self-talk, such as "I know this isn't my fault" or "I'm safe now"; and distraction techniques, such as going to the movies to change your mood. Children and adults benefit from having a repertoire of coping strategies from which to choose. This "coping toolkit" contains various strategies, so they can always try another if the first one didn't work.

Consider treatment. If children continue to express anxiety, sadness, or irritability, and their jobs as kids (school, friends, fun) are increasingly impaired, it's a good idea to pursue cognitive-behavioral therapy to bolster their coping skills. This type of treatment teaches kids to face their fears and interpret situations in healthy, effective ways. CBT will also provide parents with guidance to practice skills learned in therapy at home.

What are your first steps when your child is stressed or scared?

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