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Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Trauma –Eight ways to help

Adults can help children cope with traumatic events.

1. Listen.
Listen and empathize when children express their concerns or fears. Create a safe and confidential atmosphere in which children can discuss their fears, concerns and anxieties. Acknowledge the frightening parts of the event. Avoid being indifferent or denying the seriousness of the situation to the child. Statements such as, "Don't worry, everything will be okay" or "Just forget about it" do little to help and may communicate to the child that their feelings are not understood.

2. Reassure.
Children need comforting and frequent reassurance that they are safe.

3. Help children to recognize and express their feelings in an acceptable way.
When children are engaging in behaviors that are not healthy or adaptive such as aggression, acting out or withdrawing, adults can both recognize the feelings that underlie these behaviors and also help children identify and label these feelings. For example, if a child is clinging to his parents, a parent could say something like, "It seems that you are afraid something might happen to me; is that what you are feeling?" The parent may suggest ways children might handle the fear more appropriately, such as talking about it, drawing pictures, or writing about it in a journal.

4. Provide consistency and routine to the greatest extent possible.
Although many families and schools directly affected by a traumatic event may not be able to return to routines that were in place prior to the event, they can develop some consistency and routines in their day-to-day living. Engaging in group problem solving on how to handle these stressful times gives everyone involved a voice in decision-making and increases their ownership of the solutions to the problems.

5. Involve children in actions that help others.
Involving children in actions that are helpful to others can give them some sense of control over what is happening. Activities may include collecting money and/or food for those who are in need; performing a task such as helping others clean their homes or yards; or helping more with routine chores. They could visit nursing homes. There seems to be special bonding between the young and elderly that is very healthy and healing for both. They could donate clothing they have outgrown, or even some of their favorite clothes or toys to those who lost theirs.

6. Reduce demands.
Trauma and stress often cause reduced energy and fatigue, so children and adolescents may need reduced demands during these difficult times. For example, parents might tolerate more irritability or sibling rivalry than is usually tolerated from their children.

7. Adaptively handle adult stress.
Children pick up on their parents' and teachers' stress. Children need caregivers who are physically and emotionally available. Therefore, it is important that parents, teachers and other adults who experience trauma, , find effective ways to reduce their own stress, to understand the impact of grief, and to know when they need to seek professional help. Sharing experiences with family members, friends and other support networks is very important. Model for children: find joy in the simple things in life, take pleasure in fellowship with others, rely on your religious beliefs and spiritual strength, and count your blessings.

8. Be on the alert for behaviors that require professional help.
Parents and teachers of children who experienced a traumatic loss first hand should contact mental health personnel if the following behaviors present themselves:

  • Long term denial and/or avoidance of the traumatic event
  • Extended periods of depression (loss of interest in activities, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, inability to experience moments of joy, profound emptiness)
  • Vague and generalized feelings of guilt and depression
  • Persisting anxiety about the traumatic event
  • Inability to respond to comfort and rejection of support
  • Purposeful withdrawal from friends, loss of sociability
  • Sleep or appetite problems, unusual loss or gain of weight
  • Prolonged rather than transient physical complaints
  • Acting younger for a prolonged period
  • Destructive outbursts
  • Accident-proneness
  • Inappropriate/illegal behavior
  • Decline in school performance or refusal to attend school
  • Excessive grief
Partner Organizations NH Department of Health and Human Services NH Department of Safety American Red Cross Communty Health Institute NH Public Health Network Granite State Independent Living Volunteer NH NH Citizen Corps