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Addressing Children’s Emotional Needs in a Time of Crisis: Tips from the Pros - 06/14/2016

Addressing Children’s Emotional Needs in a Time of Crisis: Tips from the Pros

Release Date: June 14, 2016

In the wake of a tragic event like the massacre that occurred in Orlando last weekend, parents are often faced with a challenge: What, how and how much should they tell their children?

Children have nearly impeccable radars for parental anxiety, a condition that can have a trickle-down effect. In the aftermath of a stressful event — whether it’s a natural disaster, a shooting or public unrest — children can feel confused, frightened and upset.

A growing body of research shows that the effects of acute and chronic stress in childhood can precipitate the development of a range of health problems at a young age and later in life, including depression, substance abuse and heart disease. Thus, paying attention to the emotional needs of our children in times of crisis, and at all times, should remain our utmost priority.

Parents, caregivers and pediatricians should check in with children in the aftermath of a stressful event and discuss it openly. Broaching the subject directly and honestly is always the best strategy.

Normal and common reactions following a stressful experience include crying, apprehension and asking a lot of questions about the event. However, some symptoms should be considered red flags portending heightened anxiety. These include unusual irritability, excessive crankiness, hypervigilance or jumpiness, loss of appetite, nightmares and disturbed sleep. Older children may demand more attention, become restless or aggressive, or become unusually quiet and withdrawn.

Here are some tips on preventing and reducing a child’s anxiety in the aftermath of stressful events:

First and foremost, talk about it. The mere act of initiating a dialogue can go a long way toward soothing a child’s fears. Avoidance of or silence about difficult events can convey the message that the topic is “off-limits,” which can exacerbate anxiety. Open and honest discussion is also important because a child’s fears are often magnified and worse than reality. Find out how much a child knows and what his or her greatest concerns are, then contextualize the situation. If a child refuses to talk about a traumatic event, don’t push it. Give the child a few days and readdress the situation. Asking simple questions, like “Are you worried about anything?” or “Have you heard about this or that event?”, are always good conversation starters. How much detail to go into depends on a child’s age? Take cues from their response. It is important to be honest with children. They need to be able to trust adults. Loss of trust can be one of the most damaging experiences in a young child’s life. Consider sharing your feelings and letting your child know it’s OK to be upset. 

Monitor media exposure. Young children are better off not watching the news. Ideally, older children should watch the news with a parent or a caregiver. Doing so gives you a chance to discuss what is happening, put it in context for the child and gauge how the child feels about it.

Address safety. Fear is a common, healthy and understandable reaction. Help put true risk of harm in perspective, reassure children that you have taken steps to protect them at home, and let them know there are measures in place to protect students at school and other public spaces.

Take care of yourself. Children learn by observation and imitation, so it is essential for parents and caregivers to exhibit the behaviors and attitudes they want their children to develop.

Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. The aftermath of any event — be it a natural or manmade disaster — is a good opportunity to review family emergency plans. Go over do’s and don’ts, whom to call, and where to meet in the event of an emergency.

Tina Cheng, M.D., M.P.H., is professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of the Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine for Johns Hopkins.