How to Talk to Your Child About Disasters & When to Seek Help

Recent disasters, such as the wildfires in California, the Thousand Oaks shooting, and the shooting at a Pittsburgh Synagogue, can be very frightening for children.  Since children often see or hear about these events either through the different news outlets that are accessible to them or through their interactions outside the home, it can be helpful to talk about the event with them in language they can understand.

The following guidelines can be useful when having these conversations:

  • Try to set aside adequate time and a quiet space.
  • Use a tone that’s calm and language that’s not overwhelming.
  • Ask the child what he/she already knows and what questions he/she has.
  • Be honest as children are very aware of their parents’ concerns and know more than we think.
  • Talk about your worries as well as your abilities to keep your child safe.

In addition to having these conversations, it is also important to look for signs that your child might be struggling after a disaster.  There are different factors that can affect a child’s response to a disaster that can include:

  • The way they experience their parents’ response.
  • How close they are to the disaster/whether there was direct involvement
  • Whether they know anyone that was directly affected.
  • The child’s age.

Behavioral changes that might indicate your child is struggling and may benefit from being evaluated by a mental health professional include:

  • Acting out or misbehaving in school or at home that is atypical for the child.
  • Refusing to go to school or other places the child typically attended without a parent.
  • Fears that persist long after the disaster, jumpiness, nervousness, and a much heightened sensitivity or alertness to danger.
  • Avoidance of people, places, and things that remind the child of the incident.
  • Sleep disturbances or changes that were not occurring prior to the disaster, such as nightmares or bed-wetting.
  • Depressive symptoms that can include low or irritable mood, appetite changes, fatigue, withdrawal from friends and family, decreased interest in activities, feelings of hopelessness, and in some cases suicidal thoughts.
  • Physical symptoms in the absence of a physical injury or illness, such as headaches and stomachaches.

What to Do if Your Child is Being Bullied

It can be very difficult as a parent to watch your child come home from school in tears, withdrawn, or moody only to find out that they are being teased or bullied at school.  Here are some key tips to support your child and help resolve the situation as effectively as possible.

  1. Listen to your child without judgement. Allow your child to tell you the full story in their own words without interruptions and minimal reactions.  It is already difficult for a child to recount what has happened so they may minimize what happened if they feel you are getting upset.  Use open ended questions and phrases such as:  tell more about that, how so?
  2. Find out the facts. When appropriate make sure you get the  who, what, when, and where of what occurred so that you can record it and let your child’s teacher know. Keep a record of an future incidents.
  3. Problem solve. Engage in problem solving with your child so that they know how to self-advocate if the situation occurs again.  Come up with several strategies (including finding a safe teacher or administrator that your child can go to) with whom your child feels comfortable.  Practice using the strategies with role play.
  4. Reach out. Talk to your child’s teacher as soon as possible.  Keep in mind that teachers don’t always and can’t always know when bullying occurs.  Kids are smart and know when to tease/make cruel remarks when the teacher is occupied or out of earshot.
  5. Ask for a copy of your school district’s bullying policy. This will send the message that you know how to advocate for your child. Also, every school should make this available to parents upon request by law.
  6. Take your concerns up the chain of command. If the problem persists, meet with your child’s school principal and ask for documentation of how the problem will be resolved.  Familiarize yourself with the state law and pursue that the school do a full investigation and document a case of HIB (Harrassment, Intimidation, or Bullying) if you feel like you are not getting results.

Find out more here:

http://www.nj.gov/education/students/safety/behavior/hib/ParentGuide.pdf

 

http://www.stompoutbullying.org/information-and-resources/parents-page/what-do-if-your-child-being-bullied-and-resources/

 

  1. Watch for signs of serious stress, anxiety or depression.  Having your child talk to a professional can be particularly helpful especially if you see emotional or behavioral signs of stress such as social withdrawal, sleep issues, changes in appetite, or mood swings.

How to Talk to Your Child About School Shootings

Sadly school shootings have become normative in our culture and parents are faced with the question of how and when to talk to their kids about being safe in school. Here are a few tips and resources to help parents navigate these discussions:
1. Keep discussions age appropriate. Younger children need more reassurance and less specific information. They may have questions about active shooter drills or why there was a school walkout. Keep information short and age appropriate and reassure your child that adults are always taking measures to keep students safe. Older kids and teenagers will want to talk more and may want to get more involved in advocacy efforts. Make sure to make time to talk and practice reflective listening. Echo back their concerns and ideas.
2. Limit exposure to the news. News tends to refresh and replay the same upsetting images and soundbytes. Exposure to these stories via television or on the radio can be upsetting and confusing for children. Also, keep an eye out for newsfeeds that come up as ads or pop-ups on social media. Your child may be watching news footage unbeknownst to you.
3. Pay attention. Know the signs of stress or anxiety in your child. Pay attention to changes in behavior such as excessive worry, nightmares or sleep disruptions. Consider reaching out to a qualified child mental health professional if you see any of these symptoms for an extended period.
4. Stay on top of what is happening locally. Follow and attend school board meetings, talk to your child’s school principal or administrator. In the wake of the latest shooting at Parkland, many school districts have made changes to their safety policy. Share this information with your child as well as with other caregivers so that they can be prepared for changes in school visitation or pickup policies.
5. Stay connected. Encouraging regular communication with your child is the best way to know what’s going on in your child’s school . Consider scheduling a regular time to meet with your child to discuss any concerns they may have. Creating an environment of open communication will beget open communication.

Resources for parents:

Check out this recent piece which was featured in Time magazine by Dr. Ross Greene:
https://www.livesinthebalance.org/Nineteen-years-tragedy

The Anxious Child

All children experience anxiety. Anxiety in children is expected and normal at specific times in development. For example, from approximately age 8 months through the preschool years, healthy youngsters may show intense distress (anxiety) at times of separation from their parents or other persons with whom they are close. Young children may have short-lived fears, (such as fear of the dark, storms, animals, or strangers). Anxious children are often overly tense or uptight. Some may seek a lot of reassurance, and their worries may interfere with activities. Parents should not discount a child’s fears. Because anxious children may also be quiet, compliant and eager to please, their difficulties may be missed. Parents should be alert to the signs of severe anxiety so they can intervene early to prevent complications. There are different types of anxiety in children.

Symptoms of separation anxiety include:

  • constant thoughts and intense fears about the safety of parents and caretakers
  • refusing to go to school
  • frequent stomachaches and other physical complaints
  • extreme worries about sleeping away from home
  • being overly clingy
  • panic or tantrums at times of separation from parents
  • trouble sleeping or nightmares

Symptoms of phobia include:

  • extreme fear about a specific thing or situation (ex. dogs, insects, or needles)
  • the fears cause significant distress and interfere with usual activities

Symptoms of social anxiety include:

  • fears of meeting or talking to people
  • avoidance of social situations
  • few friends outside the family

Other symptoms of anxious children include:

  • many worries about things before they happen
  • constant worries or concerns about family, school, friends, or activities
  • repetitive, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) or actions (compulsions)
  • fears of embarrassment or making mistakes
  • low self esteem and lack of self-confidence

Severe anxiety problems in children can be treated. Early treatment can prevent future difficulties, such as loss of friendships, failure to reach social and academic potential, and feelings of low self-esteem. Treatments may include a combination of the following: individual psychotherapy, family therapy, medications, behavioral treatments, and consultation to the school.

If anxieties become severe and begin to interfere with the child’s usual activities, (for example separating from parents, attending school and making friends) parents should consider seeking an evaluation from a qualified mental health professional or a child and adolescent psychiatrist.

Re-printed with Permission from American Academy of Child & Adolesccent Psychiatry