Coping with Crisis December 18, 2012

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Children can experience fear and anxiety after horrific events like last week's elementary school attack in Connecticut or, closer to home, the devastating Bastrop fires last year. Experts say the best way to help them cope is to reach out, listen and return to a regular routine.

The rampage in a Connecticut elementary school December 14, 2012, left many adults and children feeling sadness and stress. Experts say even if you weren't there, it's not uncommon to feel a sense of loss.

When traumatic events occur, some children may have trouble sleeping or eating or have nightmares. They may cry easily or be afraid of things that once were very familiar. Others feel guilty for returning to daily activities. Parents may be worried about their children who are exhibiting post-traumatic stress symptoms such as acting out or regressive behavior, says Lynn Monnat, PhD, clinical assistant professor at The University of Texas at Austin and licensed psychologist at the Texas Child Study Center.

Kids respond differently to traumatic events.

"There is no one 'set' way that children/teens respond to trauma," explained Dr. Monnat. "Many youth will not experience any significant, lasting issues. Some children immediately show signs of distress, while others may develop symptoms after a few weeks/months or even later in development."

Children and even teens look to their parents for cues as to how to interpret and respond to stressful and traumatic events, according to Dr. Monnat. "It's important for parents to model good emotional regulation and to stay as calm as possible when such situations are encountered."

Helping your kids.

"It may be helpful for caregivers to openly discuss events in a calm, matter-of-fact, developmentally appropriate manner and to make themselves available to their children to address questions as they come up," Dr. Monnat added. "Caregivers can also help by reinforcing children's sense of security by limiting excessive exposure to media coverage, which often sensationalizes these events, creating an exaggerated sense of the pervasiveness of danger. Having discussions that reinforce the safety of their current environments may be beneficial as well."

Age of a child makes a difference according to Caron Farrell, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Seton Mind Institute. In her interview with KVUE in Austin, Dr. Farrell said, "If your children are younger and doesn't seem like they've seen it, I would really try and protect them from it," said Farrell. It's also important to get teenagers talking and determine what they are worried about. "Just exploring, open-ended questions: What have you heard? How does that make you feel? What are you thinking about?"

If symptoms persist or any significant changes in functioning occur, parents may want to seek professional help for their children.

Support makes a difference.

In August 2011, Texas' most destructive wildfires devastated Bastrop County, destroying more than 1,700 homes and structures. Diana Rios-Rodriguez, MSN, RN-BC, head nurse at Bastrop Independent School District, said that nurses, counselors and teachers were available right away for children who may have been affected or knew others who experienced devastating loss.

"All classroom teachers did a lesson about the fire and, if children verbalized fear and anxiety, they could get further help from a counselor," said Rios-Rodriguez. "Overall, students responded in a positive way. Different groups got together and did clothing drives or found other ways to help."

Additionally, the fires caused physical health problems. "School nurses treated children who suffered from the additional ash, dust and pollen in the air," Rodriguez-Rios said. "We were coming off an extremely dry summer, so we had things in the air from that as well as the ash." She added, "We saw increased asthma and allergy symptoms, plus irritated eyes and coughs."

Tips to help after a traumatic event:

  • Listen. It is important to be understanding and let your kids talk about what they are feeling.
  • Spend quality time together. There is no substitute for positive interactions with your child.
  • Reassure children. Let them know they are safe.
  • Resume routine. Eat well-balanced, regular meals, get plenty of rest and follow a normal routine. Return to enjoyable activities.
  • Remember that feelings of fear, anger, sadness and guilt are normal. Abnormal situations create intense feelings.
  • Seek professional help if your child's reactions are persistent or so intense that he/she is unable to maintain normal levels of functioning.

Seton Mind Institute

Seton Mind Institute Behavioral Health Services is a department of Seton Shoal Creek Hospital. The Seton Mind Institute delivers advanced medical treatments across a full range of leading-edge psychiatric and psychological services to patients throughout the Central Texas region. Our practitioners and medical staff combine world-class medicine, clinical expertise, and bio and neurosciences with the most current tools and research to evaluate and treat a broad spectrum of mental and behavioral ailments. All with the most comprehensive solutions available. As Central Texas's largest behavioral sciences program, and one of the largest in the state providing both outpatient and inpatient care, Seton Mind Institute offers children, adolescents, adults, veterans, and senior adults exemplary care and treatment to restore hope and healing, and help them live healthier, fuller lives.

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