Coping with Trauma After Violence and Disasters
Disasters cause major damage. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were examples. They occurred in 2005. Many homes were destroyed. Whole communities were damaged. Many survivors were displaced. There were also many deaths.
Trauma is also caused by major acts of violence. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were examples. Another example was the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 was also an example. These acts claim lives. They also threaten our sense of security.
Beyond these events, children face many other traumas. Each year, they are injured. They see others harmed by violence. They suffer sexual abuse. They lose loved ones. Or, they witness other tragic events.
Children are very sensitive. They struggle to make sense of trauma. They also respond differently to traumas. They may have emotional reactions. They may hurt deeply. They may find it hard to recover from frightening experiences. They need support. Adult helpers can provide this support. This may help children resolve emotional problems.
What is Trauma?
There are two types of trauma — physical and mental. Physical trauma includes the body’s response to serious injury and threat. Mental trauma includes frightening thoughts and painful feelings. They are the mind’s response to serious injury. Mental trauma can produce strong feelings. It can also produce extreme behavior; such as intense fear or helplessness, withdrawal or detachment, lack of concentration, irritability, sleep disturbance, aggression, hyper vigilance (intensely watching for more distressing events), or flashbacks (sense that event is reoccurring).
A response could be fear. It could be fear that a loved one will be hurt or killed. It is believed that more direct exposures to traumatic events causes greater harm. For instance, in a school shooting, an injured student will probably be more severely affected emotionally than a student who was in another part of the building. However, second-hand exposure to violence can also be traumatic. This includes witnessing violence such as seeing or hearing about death and destruction after a building is bombed or a plane crashes.
Helping Young Trauma Survivors
Helping children begins at the scene of the event. It may need to continue for weeks or months. Most children recover within a few weeks. Some need help longer. Grief (a deep emotional response to loss) may take months to resolve. It could be for a loved one or a teacher. It could be for a friend or pet. Grief may be re-experienced or worsened by news reports or the event’s anniversary.
Some children may need help from a mental health professional. Some people may seek other kinds of help. They may turn to religious leaders. They may turn to community leaders.
Identify children who need the most support. Help them obtain it. Monitor their healing.
Identify Children Who:
· Refuse to go places that remind them of the event
· Seem numb emotionally
· Show little reaction to the event
· Behave dangerously
These children may need extra help.
In general adult helpers should:
· Attend to children
o Listen to them
o Accept/ do not argue about their feelings
o Help them cope with the reality of their experiences
· Reduce effects of other sources of stress including:
o Frequent moving or changes in place of residence
o Long periods away from family and friends
o Pressures at school
o Transportation problems
o Fighting within the family
o Being hungry
· Monitor healing
o It takes time
o Do not ignore severe reactions
o Attend to sudden changes in behaviors, speech, language use, or in emotional/feeling states
· Remind children that adults:
o Love them
o Support them
o Will be with them when possible
How Parents Can Help:
After violence or a disaster parents and family should:
· Identify and address their own feelings — this will allow them to help others
· Explain to children what happened
· Let children know:
o You love them
o The event was not their fault
o You will take care of them, but only if you can; be honest
o It’s okay for them to feel upset
o Allow children to cry
o Allow sadness
o Let children talk about feelings
o Let them write about feelings
o Let them draw pictures
o Expect children to be brave or tough
o Make children discuss the event before they are ready
o Get angry if children show strong emotions
o Get upset if they begin:
§ Acting out
· If children have trouble sleeping:
o Give them extra attention
o Let them sleep with a light on
o Let them sleep in your room (for a short time)
· Try to keep normal routines (such routines may not be normal for some children):
o Bed-time stories
o Eating dinner together
o Watching TV together
o Reading books, exercising, playing games
· If you can’t keep normal routines, make new ones together
· Help children feel in control:
o Let them choose meals, if possible
o Let them pick out clothes, if possible
o Let them make some decisions for themselves, when possible.
Help for all people in the First Days and Weeks
Key steps after a disaster can help adults cope. Adults can then provide better care for children. Create an environment of safety. Be calm. Be hopeful. Be friendly, even if people are difficult. Connect to others. Listen to their stories. But, listen only if they want to share. Encourage respect for adult decision-making.
In general help people:
· Get food
· Get a safe place to live
· Get help from a doctor or nurse if hurt
· Contact loved ones or friends
· Keep children with parents or relatives
· Become aware of available help
· Become aware of where to get help
· Understand what happened
· Understand what is being done
· Move towards meeting their own needs
Avoid certain things:
· Don’t force people to tell their stories
· Don’t probe for personal details.
· Do not Say:
o “Everything will be OK.”
o “At least you survived.”
o What you think people should feel
o How people should have acted