When tragedy and trauma occur, it affects every person differently. Children may have an especially hard time coping with tragedy depending on their age and their cognitive development. There is no textbook way for helping your child through a tragedy but we hope to offer you some insight in how to recognize if your child is struggling through their feelings around a traumatic and/or tragic event and what you can do to help them.
The definition of anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. Since death is both imminent and uncertain, anxiety about death is very common. In all traumatic situations, the closer that a person can identify with the victim, the more likely he or she will experience anxiety related to the incident. Thus, when an officer loses his or her life in the line of duty, children can (and often) manifest extreme anxiety about losing their own law enforcement parent.
Oftentimes however, children cannot articulate that this is what they are experiencing. They may not have the words for it, or may not even consciously understand what exactly is worrying them.
So how do I know if this affects my child?
First of all, if you are affected by the trauma or tragedy then your child has probably picked up on it. Many of us are inclined not to talk about things that upset us. We try not to show our feelings and hope that saying nothing will be for the best. But not talking about something doesn’t mean we aren’t communicating. Children are great observers. They read messages on our faces and in the way we walk or hold our hands. We express ourselves by what we do, by what we say, and by what we do not say.
When we avoid talking about something that is obviously upsetting, children often hesitate to bring up the subject or ask questions about it. To a child, avoidance can be a message – “If Mom and Dad can’t talk about it, it really must be bad, so I better not talk about it either.” In effect, instead of protecting our children by avoiding talk, we sometimes cause them more worry and also keep them from telling us how they feel.
On the other hand, it also isn’t wise to confront children with information that they may not yet understand or want to know. As with any sensitive subject, we must seek a balance that encourages children to communicate – a balance that lies somewhere between avoidance and confrontation, a balance that isn’t easy to achieve. It involves:
- Trying to be sensitive to their desire to communicate when they’re ready
- Trying not to put up barriers that may inhibit their attempts to communicate
- Offering them honest explanations when we are obviously upset
- Listening to and accepting their feelings
- Not putting off their questions by telling them they are too young
- Trying to find brief and simple answers that are appropriate to their questions
- Try for answers that they can understand and that do not overwhelm them with too many words or too much jargon
Symptoms of Anxiety in Children
Children show their anxiety differently than adults. They oftentimes experience it in a physical way rather than emotionally. Some signs that your child may be exhibiting anxiety include the following:
- Sleep disturbances
- Excessive stomach aches
- Change in appetite (either loss of appetite or sudden insatiability)
- They say they feel “tingly” or like they have “pins and needles” in their body
- They complain of dizziness or “feeling funny”
- Shaky hands or legs
- They complain of difficulty breathing or feel out of breath
- They get sweaty or flushed for no obvious reason
- They say they feel their heart beating/pounding
- They say that their legs feel wobbly
- They seem restless or like they are crawling out of their skin
- They complain about a lot of aches and pains.
What to Say to Calm an Anxious Child
- “I am here; you are safe.” Anxiety has a way of making things look worse and feel scarier than when we are not feeling worried. These words can offer comfort and safety when your child is feeling out of control, especially if they are at the height of their worry. If you’re not sure what to say, this is an excellent go-to phrase!
- “Tell me about it.” Give your child room to talk about their fears without interrupting. Some children need to have time to process through their thoughts. Do not offer solutions or try to fix it. Children sometimes do better with a set amount of time: “Let’s talk about your worries for 10 minutes.”
- “How big is your worry?” or “What Color is your worry” Help your child verbalize the size or color of their worry and give you an accurate picture of how it feels to them. They can represent their worry by using arm length (hands close together or arms stretched wide apart) or by drawing three circles on a paper (small, medium and large) and choosing the one that applies. Colors are also great ways to describe worries. By helping them to externalize their worry, you can help them take control over it.
- “What do you want to tell your worry?” Explain to your child that worry is like an annoying “worry bug” that hangs around telling them to be worried. Create a few phrases, and then give them permission to talk back to this “worry bug.” They can even be bossy: “Go away!” or “I don’t have to listen to you!” Use silly voices, and try it loud and quiet
- “Can you draw it?” Many kids cannot express their emotions with words. Encourage them to draw, paint or create their worries on paper. When they are finished, make observations, and give them a chance to explain the significance: “That’s a lot of blue!”
- “Let’s change the ending.” Anxious children often feel stuck in the same pattern without a way out. Help them see different options by telling their story, but leaving off the ending. Then, create a few new endings. Some can be silly, but at least one should be realistic for your child. Focus on your child conquering their fears with confidence!
- “What other things do you know about (fill in the blank)?” Some children feel empowered when they have more information about their fear (especially things like tornadoes, bees, elevators, etc.). Grab a book from the library, do a science experiment, research together online: How often does your fear happen? How do people stay safe?
- “Which calming strategy do you want to use?” Work proactively to create a long list of calming strategies your child enjoys. Practice them during the day, at random times when your child feels calm. When your child feels a worry sneaking into their thoughts, encourage them to pick something from the list.
- “I’m going to take a deep breath.” Sometimes our children are so worried that they resist our encouragement to pick a calming strategy. In this case, use yourself as the calming skill. Verbalize what you are doing and how it makes you feel. Some people hold their children close so they can feel the rise and fall of their chest as they breathe.
- “It’s scary AND…” Acknowledge your child’s fear without making it even more frightening by using the word “AND.” After the word “and” you can add phrases like, “You are safe.” or “You’ve conquered this fear before.” or “You have a plan.” This models an internal dialogue your child can use next time they are feeling worried.
- “I can’t wait to hear about…” It’s hard to see our kids suffer with worry. Many parents rush in to rescue their child from an anxiety-producing situation. Encourage your child that they will survive this difficult feeling by bringing up a topic to talk about when you’re together later — what they did at recess, who they sat by at lunch, etc.
- “What do you need from me?” Instead of assuming that you know what your child needs, give them an opportunity to tell you what would help. Older kids may be able to verbalize if they need you to listen, give a hug, or help them find a solution. If you can’t do it, give them their wish in fantasy: “I wish grown ups could go to kindergarten too!”
- “This feeling will pass.” This may be a phrase you can both use when your child is at the height of panic. All feelings pass eventually. It often feels like they will never end, you won’t make it through, or it’s too hard. And that’s OK. Don’t let your brain get stuck in that moment; focus on the relief that is on the horizon.
How do I know if my child needs professional help?
The most important thing to note is that processing trauma and grief takes time and every person is different. There is no real “rule of thumb” when it comes to how long someone will be affected. However, the following list of behaviors may indicate that a child may need further assistance.
- Marked change in school performance.
- Poor grades despite trying very hard.
- A lot of worry or anxiety manifested by refusing to go to school, go to sleep, or take part in age appropriate activities.
- Frequent angry outbursts or anger expressed in destructive ways.
- Hyperactive activities, fidgeting, constant movement beyond regular playing
- Persistent anxiety or phobias.
- Accident proneness, possibly self-punishment or a call for attention.
- Persistent nightmares or sleeping disorders.
- Stealing, promiscuity, vandalism, illegal behavior
- Persistent disobedience or aggression (longer than six months) and violations of the rights of others.
- Opposition to authority figures.
- Frequent unexplained temper tantrums.
- Social withdrawal
- Alcohol or other drug abuse.
- Inability to cope with problems and daily activities
- Many complaints of physical ailments
- Persistent depression accompanied by poor appetite, sleep difficulties, and thoughts of death.
- Long term absence of emotion
- Frequent panic attacks
Please know that we are available to help any families with children who are struggling with anxiety and depression.
References and Resources:
“When My Worries Get Too Big” by Kari Dunn Buron
Helping Your Kids with First Responder Trauma by Lauren Brown