I'm okay, you're okay

Helping your child cope with disturbing events.

Children walk past bomb shelter in Sderot 370 (photo credit: Hadas Parush)
Children walk past bomb shelter in Sderot 370
(photo credit: Hadas Parush)
Twelve years ago, toward the beginning of the second intifada, I woke up one morning and asked my husband if he had read anything about helping kids cope with what was going on. His response of “No” led me to jump out of bed, take pen in hand and write what was to become the impetus for this psychology column. After all, I thought, someone had to be there for our children when we adults were doing all we could do to hold it together.
Now, hundreds of columns later, after we have witnessed rocket fire, terrorism, war, violence and some natural – and not so natural – disasters both here and abroad, I can’t help but once again reflect on the impact of all of these tragedies on our children. Feeling confused, anxious and frightened, our children look to us for reassurance that all is okay. Our job becomes one of quickly assessing the situation and then reassuring them that they will be safe and that all is – or will be – okay in their little worlds.
One thing that those of us who spend a lot of time working with grief and loss know is that people are surprisingly resilient and, left alone or given minimal help, most bounce back quickly after a traumatic event. Symptoms of distress reflect our bodies’ normal response to a very abnormal situation. These symptoms may appear strange and unsettling but they are actually a gift.
If you were to put your hand on a hot stove and didn’t feel anything, you might burn yourself. Similarly, if we listen to them, these symptoms of stress serve to protect us.
These reactions may be physical (such as dizziness or increase in heart rate); cognitive (difficulty concentrating or making a decision); behavioral (withdrawal or regression); or emotional (shock, sadness). They may come and go or linger, making us feel miserable and as though we are “going crazy.”
While perfectly normal, to someone who doesn’t understand what is going on, these feelings can be scary. Children can have a wide array of symptoms of stress but, because they have a less well-developed nervous system and often have immature language skills, they may find it harder to integrate and make sense out of what they are feeling. Modalities other than language, such as art or play, may enable children to more readily express their concerns. If we educate them about how they may feel, they will be more aware of what to expect and will ultimately cope better.
What can you do when there has been a traumatic event? Talk to your child and explain what has happened in simple, easy-to-understand, age-appropriate language. Give him or her the necessary information but not more than is necessary or asked for. Take the time to find out what your child’s understanding of the situation is, and validate his concerns so you can address the real issues. What truly bothers him may be different from what you imagine. Each child will have his own concerns, and these will be influenced by developmental stage, personality, previous history and exposure to trauma and loss.
HERE ARE a few questions to help get you started with your child: “What concerns you the most? What is your biggest fear/worry? What do you notice happening in your body when you get worried?” “What helps you? If anything could be possible, name one thing that you would like to happen. If you could change one thing, what would it be? Where and what makes you feel safe? Can you close your eyes and imagine it?” These are important questions for helping empower your child to move from being afraid to feeling strong and able to cope.
What are your child’s strengths? What resources does he have, or can he get through others, that will be helpful? Make a list of these with your child. What things can he do to calm himself when he is worried? It is important to talk with your children and equally important to listen to them.
We grieve and feel with our entire body.
Help your children understand what they are feeling. Teach them to listen to – and make sense out of – what their bodies are telling them. Animal research has shown us that it isn’t always enough just to talk about what worries us. We know, for example, that when we’re scared our hearts may pound faster. By learning proper breathing, we can slow our heart rates and feel better. If our stomachs feel like they are tied up in knots, focusing on loosening the knots can relieve the pain.
Children may have seen animals shiver and shake after they have confronted danger, and then run off calmly afterwards. As children learn self-soothing techniques, they too can feel safer and more confident in handling an unfamiliar situation. These skills can be used daily whenever a child feels he needs them.
During stressful periods, make sure your child eats well, and gets enough rest and plenty of physical exercise. Turn off the television, as visual exposure can easily retraumatize a child. Prolonged or repeated exposure to stress can put us at greater risk.
Play, relaxation activities and encouraging normal routine are all essential to help a child feel in control.
Each person’s perception of trauma is unique. Two children sitting next to each other may experience the same situation differently and will each react accordingly.
Give your child time to work through his concerns; but if you see ongoing signs of distress, such as disrupted sleep, eating problems, mood or behavioral changes, regression or unhappiness, make sure you seek professional help.
Children take their cues from us. The best way to help your child is to be a good role model and to be there for them. Sometimes this may be difficult. Remember, the best way to help your child is to first help yourself.
If you’re okay, they will be okay.
Dr. Batya L. Ludman is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra’anana. She has written frequently on trauma and loss. Her book, Life’s Journey: Exploring Relationships – Resolving Conflicts, was recently published by Devora Publishers. ludman@netvision.net.il www.drbatyaludman.com