For our new feature “Ask the Experts at KidsPeace,” we asked KidsPeace’s Jodi S.W. Whitcomb, M.S., a therapist and director of organizational development and training, for advice for parents who are concerned about their children’s reaction to the racial divisions and social upheavals that dominate the news coverage in the U.S. at this time:
When these kinds of events occur, it is difficult for anyone to process and make sense of it. People (both youth and adults) may feel a mixture of emotions and be confused by their thoughts and feelings about what is happening in the world. At KidsPeace, we have had experience with helping youth cope in the wake of these kinds of traumatic events as they unfold.
Normal reactions to extraordinary events include:
- Sleep and/or eating problems
- Sadness, tearfulness
- Fear, anxiety, worry
- Irritability, anger
- Headaches, upset stomach
- Trouble focusing, feeling “numb” or “fuzzy”
- Not wanting to engage in normal activities, such as going to school
- Not wanting to leave their “comfort zone” (with whomever or wherever that is)
- Being “okay” at first but then “breaking down” unexpectedly
- Wanting to avoid the situation or talk about the situation
It is normal for these symptoms to persist for a few weeks. After that point, they will probably subside a little bit at a time. But every child and every adult is different in their reactions to events like these.
Typically speaking, individuals who are geographically closer to the events, or closer individuals who are in some way emotionally connected to the event, will have a stronger reaction than others. HOWEVER, the media brings everyone a lot closer together. People who live in other states, for instance, may feel stronger effects of the trauma because they are seeing such a realistic representation of it on TV or through the Internet.
Parents should not underestimate the power of vicarious traumatization, which is to be traumatized by watching something, looking at pictures, or by listening to the telling of a story over and over.
Also, it’s important to note that anything a person views in the media that strikes a chord within him/her personally due to a past event, or a personal concern/issue, can trigger negative thoughts or emotions. This is called a trauma response and should not be minimized or ignored.
What parents can say and do to help:
- Limit exposure to media relating to the events.
- Talk to your child about what happened, but don’t give them information they do not need.
- Let your child be your guide. Answer what they ask and nothing more. [Example: “Mom, did anyone get hurt?” “Yes, it’s sad, but some people did get hurt.” It’s not necessary to give the details.]
- Listen to what they have to say. Let them talk. Validate their emotions.
- Be tolerant and understanding of worry, fear, sadness and anger. Be prepared to deal with these emotions and remind yourself that they are normal responses given the circumstances.
- Do whatever you can to make your child feel safe and secure.
- Take care of yourself. As parents, we can’t help our children if we aren’t taking care of our own needs.
If the symptoms (such as those listed above) do not improve, or get worse, it’s time to see a mental health professional. Reach out to the guidance department at your child’s school or call your child’s pediatrician. You or your teenaged child may also like to visit www.teencentral.com for more resources.
Jodi S. W. Whitcomb, M.S., is the Agency Coordinator of the KidsPeace Critical Incident Response Team and Director of Organizational Development and Training at KidsPeace.