In the wake of a disturbing event or tragic loss in the lives of children, parents and teachers do their best to help kids cope with their grief and anxiety in a healthy way. It is best to engage kids in a clam and supportive dialogue about their feelings. It is certainly not easy to do so, but it can make a big difference to kids. Some children are more at risk than others for suffering long-term effects from an upsetting event. This may include those who have lost close friends, classmates or relatives and those who might have learned about the event or loss in a particularly emotional and upsetting manner. The way a child experiences an event and how its handled by those around them has an effect on how traumatizing it will be. When families experience a traumatic event, parents can often be caught off guard and respond in a highly emotional way than can impact children. Television coverage and shocking newspaper headlines can also amplify the impact of a disturbing event or loss. As you try and soothe and comfort your child it is important to recognize the signs of unhealthy coping. In extreme cases, children can develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Unhealthy coping can interfere with a child’s life and happiness. Here are some signs to keep in mind.
Everyone grieves at a different pace. An immediate reaction or lack thereof is not an indicator of how a child will cope with trauma. If a child seems to be coping well, they still might have a poor reaction as time passes. It could also be a sign they are handling it well. While we want to help our children as much as possibly immediately after the event, often times a lasting and significantly emotional response won’t be evident until three to six months later.
Increased thinking about death and safety
One common sign of PTSD or a PTSD-like reaction is a hyper-focus on mortality or death. While some children become notably morbid and fascinated by death, others will develop an obsession with their own safety and the safety of those close to them. In the case of an accident or another disaster (earthquake/fire), their thoughts might return with disturbing regularity to the possibility of another accident or disaster occurring where they live.
Problems with sleeping, eating, anger and attention
Some symptoms of trauma in children closely mimic depression including the following: too much or too little sleep, loss of appetite or overeating, unexplained irritability/anger and problems focusing on school work and conversations. Sometimes the symptoms appear more like an anxiety disorder with obsessive or pervasive worry and difficulty separating from parents.
When an event is connected to school, such as the loss of a classmate or violence at school itself, an unhealthy reaction could take the form of avoiding school. While episodes of depression, heightened anxiety, trouble sleeping and fixation on the event may be transient, avoiding school is a clear sign that something is wrong. For the most part, everyone will experience some form of those things either altogether or in pieces. However, if over time it continues and doesn’t life, it may result in complete school refusal. At that point, it is definitive that a child needs help.
The nature of a child’s response to a traumatic event varies. Stress can also manifest differently in girls and boys. Although, this is by no means definitive, boys often react more quickly with irritation and anger, while girls can have delayed reactions that are more internal.
The reactions of children may be influenced by their developmental level, ethnicity/cultural factor, previous trauma exposure, available resources and preexisting child/family problems. Nearly all children express some kind of distress or behavioral change in the acute phase of recovery from a traumatic event. Not all short-term responses to trauma are problematic and some behavior changes may reflect adaptive.