Children learn how to cope with trauma from their parents. They look to them for guidance on how to react to unusual traumatic experiences, observing the moods and behaviors of trusted adults.
If parents react (cope) negatively to any incident, the child will remember and internalize that feeling. Unfortunately, this can cause stress and possible long-term anxiety in that child, which in extreme cases, may cause post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even in later years.
Jamie Howard, a clinical child psychologist and trauma expert at the Child Mind Institute in New York, was quoted in ABC News Radio:
“We look to grown-ups to interpret situations for us,” Howard said. “It’s called social referencing. It’s what kids do. So we are all sort of being watched. And kids are looking to us to let them know: How should we be reacting to this?”
In the aftermath of the mass killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., child experts urged parents to limit their children’s exposure to the news and encouraged parents to listen to their children after asking them open-ended questions.
Unlike previous mass killings, this one involved mostly children. These children, and children from all over the country, were scared, confused and looked at their parents on how to emotionally cope with this trauma.
Many parents were not only in shock that this tragedy happened at an elementary school, but they were fearful and confused, as well. Elementary schools are supposed to be a safe haven, not a crime scene. The parents’ outwardly behaviors from this traumatic experience may have been picked up by their children as they learned cues to cope with trauma.
If the parents are emotionally unstable, the children see this and learn that this is the way to cope.
How to cope in front of the kids
While it is encouraged to talk, answer children’s questions and show emotions, experts warn parents to not be “overly emotional” in front of their children. Children look to their parents for emotional stability learning how to cope with any trauma or unusual situations. Howard suggests parents share the fears or sadness with other mature adults and not in the presence of the children.
As in any traumatic experience, parents need to be aware of any behavioral changes in their child(ren). These changes may include sleeping difficulty, fearfulness and sadness among various other changes that are out of the ordinary for the child. The unusual behaviors may be an indicator that the child needs help to cope with a trauma.
Adam Lanza was identified as the shooter in the deadly massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012. Authorities said Lanza had fatally shot his mother at home before driving to the elementary school where he killed 20 young children, six adults and himself in one of the worst mass shootings at a school in U.S. history.
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