Psychologically speaking: Are my children okay?

The war in the North has just ended and I wonder how I'll know just how much my children have been affected and in what way.

mother and child 88 (photo credit: )
mother and child 88
(photo credit: )
Dear Dr. Batya, The war in the North has just ended and I wonder how I'll know just how much my children have been affected and in what way. How can I help them cope with the psychological aftermath? - M.L. Zichron Ya'acov Dear M.L. How your child copes will depend on his age, emotional development, his previous and current personal experiences and the safety of his family. I don't know whether your family remained in Zichron Yaakov or moved South, but if, for example, they had exposure to sirens or explosions, were in a shelter (miklat), and/or had family members off fighting, the impact will likely be greater. When changes are sudden, unexpected, violent or complex, coping becomes all the more tenuous for each and every one of us. Adults often think that their children are unaware of the current situation or that it had little impact. Sadly, if you have been affected, then chances are so have they. If you cope well, they will also. Here are some general guidelines. Remember, you as a parent are the best person to assess your child's current level of stress. 1. Talk to and with your children. Children need to voice their concerns and know you are there to listen and help. For younger children, it may be enough to simply state that the siren they heard on television was scary. Older children may be concerned with safety issues - both past and present. Often these discussions need to be dealt with at a time when you yourself have so few answers. What happened this past month and what does it mean for the future? Focus on each child's particular needs. Children cope differently than adults. Children need to know that it is perfectly normal to cry, or feel unhappy, or scared or whatever, during and after when something significant happens around them. That quiet walk and talk or a cuddle will give your child the time to share feelings and concerns that will otherwise keep him up all night. 2. Provide accurate, honest, truthful, and age-appropriate information. This enables children to understand and work through their fears and concerns. Children need simple and straightforward explanations and must be included in basic discussions. Don't get bogged down with unnecessary details but validate their feelings. Children learn best to deal with situations when they are taught by those they love and trust and with whom they feel close. 3. Reassure your children that you are going to do everything within your power to ensure their safety. Children need to know that you will be there for them and will look after their basic needs. Children need to be aware of safety issues within their immediate environment of their home and city and need to know what may be expected of them. This discussion should be casual and should not elicit fear. Teach them important phone numbers - of police, family and others. Enlist their help and use their suggestions as to how to make your own immediate environment a safe one. 4. Try and give predictable routines during these unpredictable times. Continue to keep to a schedule that approximates what you had previously before. Make play dates with friends and allow children as much freedom as you feel comfortable with. Follow through on household rules and daily activities. This will help your child to feel more secure when his world may feel less stable. 5. Take time out to enjoy life and make the best of it. Get distracted and allow for a little fun into your lives. Everyone needs a break. Limit access to the television and be aware of what your children are being exposed to through the media. Some children are more sensitive than others. Rent a movie for the entire family to watch together, play a board game, or bake a cake as a family event. You may know or suspect that your child is experiencing problems that are beyond the usual age-related issues if he starts to show symptoms of stress. You may see signs of regression with your child behaving younger than considered appropriate (with signs such as wetting or soiling himself, temper tantrums, sleep or eating problems). You may see signs of depression including sleep issues (such as waking more often at night, having more trouble getting to sleep, getting up early or spending more time in bed), or find that your child is eating more or less than usual, having difficulty with socialization, or having a hard time concentrating focusing, paying attention or remembering important details. He may appear sad, quiet or fearful. He may act out by being loud or obnoxious, appear obsessed with war related details, or have physical or somatic complaints, or have a change in behavior that is different from his previous behavior. If your child is experiencing any of these problems for longer or more intensely than before, it's best to seek professional guidance. That said, it is normal to see some anxiety and regression after all they have been through and a skilled clinical psychologist may feel it's best to watch and not intervene. Things often settle down and your child's behavior may return to normal. However, if you or your children are not coping well, it is best to seek professional assistance sooner rather than later. We are so much more resilient than we ever thought possible, but we have all been through much over the past month. I wish for you and your loved ones much peace and a way to make sense of all this at a later point in time. The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana.