Thomas D. Yarnell, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist

We, as a country, have just experienced the most horrible attack that can be imagined. Thanks to the media, every detail was shown - again and again. Yes, many of us, including me, were riveted to the TV coverage in utter disbelief about the tragedy that was unfolding. As adults, it was impossible to comprehend the horror of watching people jump from windows to their death and watch as 2 110 story buildings collapsed on top of whomever was still in them. Unfortunately, many young children were watching the same things we were watching. Many children saw all the gruesome details we saw. Their minds, however, are even less able to comprehend what they saw. This may leave an indelible mark on their minds and emotions that could leave them scarred for life unless you, their parents, do something about it now.

Children will tend to react the way their parents react to a crisis.  If you, the parent, became anxious, angry or confused, your child will respond, to some extent, the way you did.  The problem is they do not know why they are feeling the way they do.  The other possibility is that children will become fearful for their own life and the life of their family.  It's not unusual for children to develop symptoms of trauma when they have observed or heard about acts of terror.

It is too late to keep the younger children from seeing all the images on TV but it is not too late to influence or change their reaction to it.

The first thing you as a parent must do is to get your children to talk about what they think and feel about what they saw and heard.  Turn the TV off, remove distractions and let them know that they have your full attention.  If they talk about being scared or worrying that something will happen to them, do not tell them that it's silly to feel that way or belittle what they think or feel.  This will only make them stop talking and keep their feelings to themselves.  Encourage them to express all their feelings without being judgmental.  The more they talk about how they feel and what they feel the easier it will be to get rid of the fear. 

Let your children know that you understand how they feel. It's normal to be afraid when traumatic events occur. Reassure them that you love them and that they are safe.  Reassure your children that they are not in danger and the rest of the family is not in danger either. If you have a sensitive child who has become very fearful, you will have to continue to give your reassurance often and for quite awhile.  If behavior at bedtime is a problem, give your children extra time and reassurance. Let them sleep with a light on if necessary.  Again, do not belittle your child for being afraid.  This will only make your children feel worse and will not help them get over it.

      Another technique that will help your children is to answer any questions they have about the incident.  Answers should be short and age appropriate.  The older the child, the more details you can go into.  Do not try to lie to your children as most children will see through it and will begin to mistrust you.  You should try to answer all the questions because if you just leave something out, your children will make up something to fill the space.  Generally, when children do this, what they make up is more scary and worse than the truth.  If you do not know and answer, admit that and tell your child you will try to find out.

When you, as a parent, ignore or avoided talking about what happened, you are sending a signal to your children that it is wrong to feel the way they feel.  This only serves to make your children not trust you and increase their fear that what they saw happen could happen again to them.  Once these beliefs set in, other symptoms of trauma may start to develop.

According to the National Institute Of Mental Health, children may develop symptoms immediately or not until weeks or months later.  The reactions will vary according to the age of the child.

For children five years of age and younger, typical reactions can include a fear of being separated from the parent, crying and excessive clinging.  Parents may also notice children returning to behaviors exhibited at earlier ages such as thumb sucking, bedwetting and fear of the dark.  Children at this age tend to be strongly affected by the parent's reaction to the traumatic event.

For children 6 to 12 years old, typical reactions can include extreme withdrawal, disruptive behavior and regressive behaviors such as nightmares, sleep problems, irrational fear and irritability.  Depression, anxiety and feelings of guilt are often present as well.

Adolescents may exhibit responses similar to those of adults such as nightmares, depression, interpersonal problems with their peers and antisocial behavior.

If your child develops any of these symptoms, you should consider getting counseling for them as soon as possible.  All mental health research indicates that the sooner the counseling starts after the symptoms appear, the easier and faster it is to help the child get over the problem.

      God Bless America

Copyright  C  2001 - 2008  Dr. Thomas Yarnell  All rights reserved.

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