Helping Children Cope With War and Traumatic Events
War and other traumatic events can be very upsetting to children. Children may be afraid that a bad event will harm them or their parents. Damage, injury and death from war and other events are hard for children to understand. This causes them to feel threatened and that their world is out of control. How parents and other adults react to the events has a strong impact on a child. In this handout, you will learn more about how children are affected by war and tragedy, and how you might help a child cope.
How Children are Affected by War and Other Events
Children can become fearful and anxious about what they see, hear, and experience. A child’s anxiety level may increase when he sees or hears frightening sights and stories. This can occur while watching TV or listening to adults talk about war and other traumatic events. During these times, it’s common for children to regress and act younger than they are. They may have trouble staying or falling asleep. Some children fear the dark, become afraid of being separated from their parents, and have nightmares. Others may “feel sick” or have headaches. Children who are worried can become more confused and easily distracted.
- 0-2 year olds – may become irritable and need more comfort and reassurance. They can sense when an adult is anxious even if you don’t tell them.
- 3-6 year olds – feel helpless and unable to protect themselves. They may have trouble putting feelings into words. Children at this age often don’t know how a loss could affect them over time. The child may feel that he caused the bad event by being naughty.
- 7-12 year olds – can understand the long-lasting impact of loss. Since they are able to appreciate the effects of war and disaster, they may have a broader range of feelings like guilt and anger. They can become preoccupied with details and talk about them non-stop. A child this age may lack concentration and feel their world is unsafe.
- 13-18 year olds – often need to share their feelings and worries with their peers. Teens, too, may feel their world is unsafe. In an effort to appear strong and in control, they may avoid or feel unable to talk with family members. Teens can be hit especially hard by tragic events or even the chance of something tragic.
Helping Children Cope in Times of War and Tragedy
Though there are many things out of our control during troubled times, as parents we still want to know how we can best help our children. This list may give you ideas and options. Feel free to talk with us further about what might work best for you and your child.
- Focus on your children during difficult times. Let them know you love them. Set aside time to talk with them and let them know you are there for them. Reassure them that they are safe.
- Let your child know it is okay to feel upset and to talk about it. Accept that children express their feelings and reactions in different ways.
- Find out what your child knows about war or traumatic events. Ask open-ended questions such as, “What have you heard?” or “What do you know about…?” This allows your child to tell you more about his or her concerns.
- Stay calm. Emotional cues from adults have a large impact on children.
- Stay close. Let your children know where you are if you are going to be away. Give them more hugs and support, especially at bedtime. Take steps to read to them or spend extra time with your child at this time. Bedtime can be hard for children who are frightened or worried.
- Know that children may regress at times of tragedy. Accept clinging or immature behaviors. Keep a close eye on your child’s emotional state and behaviors.
- Stick to the facts. Answer your child’s questions honestly and briefly. Keep in mind that younger children may be confused. Hiding the truth can make children more worried and distrustful. Yet, adding too many details may overwhelm the child.
- Help dispel myths. Children need to know that while there are “bad” people out there who do bad things, not all people in a particular group are “bad.” Help children understand that lashing out at members of religious or ethnic groups is not appropriate.
- Think about the child’s age and development as you explain things.
0-2 year olds – Try to protect infants and toddlers from images seen or heard on TV that could frighten, upset, or startle them.
3-6 year olds – Be brief, simple, and reassuring. Help them to sort out real from fantasy. Young children tend to feel that their actions are the cause of bad events. Assure them that they did nothing to cause the bad event. Let them know that they will not be abandoned or harmed. You may want to use play to work through intense feelings. Also, if the child has not been exposed to the bad event, you may not want to bring it up.
7-12 year olds – Children at this age have lots of questions. They are concerned. Help them sort out fact from fiction. It’s best for parents of children this age to start a discussion about the tragic event using open-ended questions.
13-18 year olds – Encourage teens to express their opinions and ideas for improving the situation. Help them find ways to best cope with the situation.
- Stick to normal routines. Build in things that your child likes to do. Take steps to reduce the child’s fears.
- School is a good place to maintain a sense of normalcy. Being with others can be helpful. Find out what your school is doing to help children cope. Working with the schools may help you to feel the reassurance you need as a parent.
- Limit or restrict TV viewing. Avoid having your child hear or see direct news since it can be very frightening. To protect small children, watch TV or listen to the radio away from them. For older children and teens, make a conscious decision about whether you will allow them to watch TV footage. If you are going to allow it, prepare them for what they might see and remain with them while they are watching it. Children and teens should NOT watch footage non-stop. Overexposure can be traumatizing.
- Reassure children that the violence is isolated to certain areas, and that they will not be harmed. Let them known you’ve done everything you can to keep them safe.
- Help children to find things to do that help them express their feelings. Talking about a tragedy is critical to helping children cope. Allow your child to express his or her feelings. Be an active listener. Encourage your child to get their feelings out through play. Younger children often like to draw, use puppets, or engage in pretend play. School-age children benefit from group discussions and activities. Older children may also find music or art helpful as ways to express their feelings.
- Stress can take a physical toll on children (and their parents). Be sure that you and your child get enough food, exercise, and sleep. Movement can be especially helpful to children who are worried. Biking, running, playing ball, and other sporting events may help your child ease worries and reduce anxiety.
- Help your child to do things that may help others – write a poem or story, offer a prayer, draw a picture, make a card, and so forth.
Watching for Signs of Serious Emotional Trauma
Strong reactions to tragic events are normal. Over time they should fade. Most children return to normal routines without excess displays of anger or anxiety. If you notice that any of these symptoms last for a few weeks or they are having a severe impact on your child’s activities, you should seek help for your child.
- Conflicts with classmates or friends, little or no contact with friends
- Strained family relationships, increased behavior problems, anger, refusal to do normal routines
- Decline in school performance
- Increase in negative self talk
- Physical complaints with no apparent cause
- Increase in acting out, breaking the rules, using alcohol and chemicals
- Nightmares, trouble falling or staying asleep, trouble getting back to sleep once awake
- Strong fear or pre-occupation with death and violence
- Lack of energy and interest in things the child use to enjoy
- Changes in mood
- Changes in appetite
Children who have dealt with death, divorce, and major life changes may feel more vulnerable. War and traumatic events can trigger emotions that were felt during an earlier trauma. Children and adults often find it helpful to talk with a counselor or therapist who can assess the child’s reactions and help them deal with how they are feeling.
For more information or help, feel free to contact a social worker or health psychologist. UWHC Pediatric Health Psychologists can be reached at (608) 263-8415 or (608) 262-9185. UWHC Pediatric Social Workers can be reached at (608) 263-6426 or (608) 262-8398.
A Note of Reassurance to Parents
Remember, how you react to the events has a strong impact on your child. If there is any way that we might help you, please let us know.
The information provided should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
Last Updated: 10/22/2010
Copyright © 10/22/2010 University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority. All rights reserved. Produced by the Department of Nursing. HF#5882
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