A: The last couple of years have been incredibly difficult for kids and adults alike. We have had to deal with a pandemic that has altered our daily lives along with losing many loved ones to illness, observed violence and the effects of war in other countries, and seen the impacts of loss of life from mass shootings.
So many people have suffered from fear, stress, anxiety, depression and anger during these times, and parents and caretakers may have the additional stress of trying to help support kids through these challenging times Many families have been experiencing a feeling of helplessness.
When a tragedy occurs start with asking kids what they know about it. It is a good idea to talk to teens and kids of all ages as even young kids are often aware of tragic events. Asking kids to share with you what they know about the event will help guide the discussion and allow for correction of incorrect information they may have heard.
Ask them what questions they have. It is best to provide straightforward and basic answers to their questions and to avoid any details beyond what they are asking. It is also important to tell them that you are always available to listen if they want to talk and will try to answer their questions.
It is OK if you don’t know the answers to their questions, just tell them that. Them knowing that they can ask you anything and that you will be honest with them is very reassuring and provides them comfort.
Be selective about what sources of media they are exposed to. News stories often show repetitive clips of footage that may be disturbing, and social media may disseminate information.
Try prescreening news stories or social media posts that you can look at together. This provides a great opportunity to discuss what is happening and to answer any questions in the moment. Be cognizant of how much exposure you have to media not only for self-protection but to avoid any unintentional exposure to the kids, as well.
Signs that your child or teen may not be coping well with recent tragic events include a change in sleep habits (difficulty falling asleep, nighttime awakenings, nightmares), eating more or less than usual, emotional lability, physical complaints such as headaches or stomach aches, and behavior changes. Some kids may be clingier or have difficulty focusing on school or activities.
Younger kids may have regression of some of their developmental milestones. It is helpful to try and maintain their usual routines. Make sure they are getting enough sleep, eating a variety of healthy foods, and getting regular physical activity. This is helpful advice for parents and other family members, as well.
Check in with them periodically but try to avoid discussions right before bedtime as this may impact their sleep. If they are still having difficulty coping discuss this with their health care provider and consider working with a counselor.
While you cannot prevent tragedy from striking there are some things you can do on a regular basis to help kids and teens be more resilient. It is critical for a child to have a loving, supportive, responsive adult in their life from the beginning, or as soon as possible. With infants and young children, it is important to have “face time” when an adult makes eye contact, talks to, and responds to the child. We can also help children and teens learn to be resilient.
Empower them to make decisions and focus on their strengths. Model and help them learn positive coping strategies such as talking to someone, listening to music or doing art, journaling, praying, exercising, meditating or taking deep breaths. Practice self-care in ensuring they get proper nutrition, enough sleep and exercise.
Volunteering and contributing to their community can help give them a sense of purpose and control in trying to make their world a better place. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, healthychildren.org, and the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University are all great resources for more information.
Melissa Mason is a general pediatrician with Journey Pediatrics in Albuquerque. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.