By Estelle Sobel Erasmus
With the horrible Newtown school shootings, you are probably wondering, “how as a parent can I address what is sure to be a media onslaught with my impressionable five year old; and my teenager?”
To answer your question, I reached out to The American Psychological Association (APA), who recently posed these kinds of questions to Psychologist Robin H. Gurwitch, PhD, a professor and program coordinator of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. APA and Dr. Gurwitch recently partnered with Nickelodeon on a discussion guide created to hep parents, educators and caregivers address 9/11 with kids ages 6 to 14. The guide provides tips on recognizing a child’s worries or other anxieties, and how to help children cope.
Q: How do children react to a traumatic event? Is there a typical reaction and is it different from that of adults?
A:Young children are more likely to have temper tantrums. Simple requests may be met with “no” or it may take them a while to follow your requests. Irritability in older teens may manifest in more short-tempered reactions. For example, a 4-year-old has a mind of her own when she gets dressed for preschool. However, when feeling more distressed, she may break into tears when she can’t find her favorite skirt. Although a 16-year-old usually picks up his younger sister from her dance class, when feeling more distressed, he argues with his mother that this is a big inconvenience now—he picks up his sister, but with a negative attitude.
Q: For those children who accidentally see media coverage, how will they view it?
A: Very young children may not understand that what they are watching is a replay; therefore, watching the horrors being repeated may be anxiety-producing. Older children may have some anxiety as they strive to understand what they are seeing and why the attacks took place. They may “fill in” what they do not understand and this can create anxieties. Furthermore, as they watch their parents’ or caregivers’ reactions to the coverage, children will likely take cues from them. It will be important for parents and other caregivers to monitor exposure and discuss what is seen. We recommend that very young children (under 6 years of age) watch little to none of the media coverage.
Q: How should parents and other caregivers help those children who have an emotional reaction to the coverage?
A: For children who have an emotional reaction to the coverage, the most important thing parents and other caregivers can do is to be available. This means listening to your child’s concerns and honestly and age-appropriately answering any questions. It will be important to help children understand actions that are being taken to reduce the risk of such events ever happening again. In other words, you can’t say “never again”—but the probability of your child being directly affected is very low. This is a good time for families to discuss safety and disaster plans to reinforce a sense of security. Finally, if parents notice an emotional reaction, reduce time spent watching and increase time spent talking. Monitor your child’s reactions and if they do not lessen or are combined with changes in daily behaviors, consider contacting a mental health professional as these reactions may be a sign that the child is having worries about other things that may be affecting his or her overall emotional well-being.