In my last post, I discussed how young children process and deal with violent or frightening images, such as when they inadvertently see incidents of terrorism or natural disaster on TV. Truth is, young children see the world much differently than adults do, and understanding that is an important starting point. In this post, I’d like to take the topic a step further and discuss how you can help children deal with these fears.
Look for Sustained Problems
Small children probably won’t tell you if they’re still bothered by something they saw, but you can watch for these telltale symptoms:
- Toileting and sleep problems, including nightmares
- General anxiety
- Separation anxiety or worry about the safety of loved ones
- Whining, demanding behavior, or other signs of needing your comfort
- Unusual impulse control
- Physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches
- Cognitive confusion
- Trouble identifying their feelings
If the fear and anxiety of seeing something traumatic lingers more than three or four weeks without improvement, it may be time to consult a professional.
How You Can Help
If you notice one or more of these signs in your child, there are a number of ways to help and comfort him. Interestingly, it begins with you. First, master and manage your own reactions to stimuli, as well as your interactions with other adults. When your child sees you as calm, brave and capable, he or she has a role model. That’s important because young children naturally reflect the emotional state of the adults around them. It’s also important to offer more of your time, affection and comfort. And of course, unnecessary stress should be avoided.
Adopt Some Positive Activities
Aside from assuring your child that things will get better, you may want to provide some concrete tasks that he or she can perform. These will help your child regain a sense of control over his own life. Soon, he will learn that his actions can have a positive effect on his environment and the world around him.
Here are some activities that might help:
- Praying together, if your family is religious
- Drawing pictures or writing letters for the families of victims
- Crafting other signs of remembrance, such as planting flowers or making a monument
- Collecting donations or food items for charities that offer support
- Playing creatively with associated toys like fire trucks, planes and doctor kits
- Encouraging your child to express his feelings, or accepting quiet as his own form of coping
Keep in mind that it’s critical to strike a balance between protecting your child and distorting reality. If you downplay certain events or hold back the truth, it could have an opposite effect on your child. Be truthful—but only to the extent that it is necessary. Ultimately, you need to communicate to your child that he is safe.
David Lowenstein, Ph.D. is a psychologist and the clinical director of Lowenstein & Associates, Inc. in Columbus, Ohio. In addition to providing therapeutic services to individuals and families, he offers training and consultation to numerous associations, schools and agencies around the country. Additionally, he is a frequent radio and TV guest and a resource and contributing writer for numerous newspapers and magazines nationwide. Contact Dr. David Lowenstein at 691 South Fifth Street Columbus, OH 43206 or by phone at 614.443.6155 or 614.444.0432.