Practical Advice for Parents: How to Help Your Child Following a Trauma

In light of the murderous attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, we have put together a number of recommendations for parents on how to help children cope during times of crisis. These recommendations were assembled by experts from the Israel Trauma Coalition.

Children’s Reactions

Children’s reactions will depend upon the severity of the trauma, their personality, the way they cope with stress and the availability of support, the reaction of their caregivers. In a time of trauma the feelings of helplessness and fear may lead to wide range of reactions:

Sleep disturbances or eating difficulties may happen. Children may begin to regress emotionally or act younger than their chronological age. They also may become more clingy and needy of parental attention and comfort. Feelings of irritability, anger or sadness may emerge. Somatic complaints such as headaches and stomachaches are not unusual. Children and adolescents may repeatedly relive the trauma by acting it out in play or dreams. Others may seek to avoid all reminders of the trauma by withdrawing from others, refusing to discuss their feelings, or avoiding activities that remind them of the people or places associated with the trauma. These are all normal reactions to abnormal circumstances. Overtime these symptoms or behavior should reduce.

Parents are the Source of Strength

You, the parents, are the most important source of strength when it comes to helping your children cope during times of crisis.

The vast majority of children recover from trauma without any professional help, through the support of their relatives. Despite that, it is important that as parents you become attentive to the signs of distress that a child may present, in order to be there to support him/her during that time.

Practical Advice

A few pieces of practical advice to help you and your children cope during times of crisis:

  • Your reaction is critical – children are acutely aware of your reaction to the event – Children learn how to respond to situations by observing the adults around them (parents, day-care providers, or teachers). Try as much as possible to demonstrate calm behaviors. In order to do this, share your feelings and thoughts with friends or extended family members before speaking with your children.
  • Give them the attention they need – recognize/acknowledge their feelings – Attention and listening on your part provides the child with the opportunity to express his experience and to obtain a sense of comfort and security. If the child wants to discuss his feelings don’t prevent him from doing so, in fact, encourage him to share what he is feeling. Demonstrate understanding and empathy, and explain to him that if he feels afraid, angry, or upset, that these are natural and normal reactions to an abnormal situation.
  • Adjust the information you provide to the level of understanding of your child – Adapt the information you provide to the age and level of understanding of your child. Tell the truth, but don’t expand too much on the matter. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know. Too much information may confuse children. If the child doesn’t want to know about what happened, don’t insist on telling him. In any event, it is important not to provide information that is untrue regarding what happened.
  • Limit children’s exposure to the news and media – Limit exposure to live coverage of tragic news related to the event. This is particularly important for pre-school thru elementary aged children. Use other methods such as DVDs, stories, or games to occupy children during such a time.
  • Try to keep to a normal routine and provide children with reassurances regarding their safety – As much as possible keep to regular routines including meal-times and bed-time. Reassure the children that they are safe and you are with them and provide the message that “together we get through this”.

Signs of Distress

Signs of distress that warrant consideration of professional attention:
With a warm net of social support, most adults and children recover spontaneously from the trauma. If there is no change in the intensity and frequency of reactions to the trauma and changes in behaviors after a few months, one should seek out professional advice.

  • What about you? Acknowledge your sensitive situation -You are your child’s best support. In order to take care of them you must take care of yourself. Maintain close contact with friends and family, maintain routine and turn to professionals for additional support if needed. Try to maintain healthy eating and sleeping habits.
  • Relaxation techniques are shown to help address the physiological manifestations of acute stress. The techniques may include mindfulness, deep breathing, guided imagery and meditation. Research shows that stabilizing and relaxing the body will relax the mind, and vice versa. If you struggle with racing, obsessive or intrusive thoughts, it might help to focus on finding ways to relax your body.
  • Don’t hesitate to turn to mental health professionals if it seems like you or your children are in need. As always, Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) of Pittsburgh is available to help people individually or through our institutions and synagogues to cope with tragic events and to promote the resiliency of our community. If you would like to inquire about counseling for yourself or your family, please contact the JFCS office at 412-422-7200.

Israel Trauma Coalition
Jewish Family and Community Services

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