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Managing Fear in Traumatized Children
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In the last section, we discussed four aspects of helping parents create a "conversational comfort zone" for children experiencing stress due to secondary or media exposure to a terrorist attack. These four aspects are the 5 "W"s, acknowledging feelings, offering concrete information, and offering ways to cope with feelings.
In this section, we will discuss four aspects of helping parents of children traumatized by secondary or media exposure to terrorist attacks learn how to manage their own fears when talking to their children. These four aspects are; explore your own fears first, express and acknowledge your fears, remember that your fears are not the same as the child’s, and deciding whether to bring up traumatic news with children.
Tony, 42, was the father of Suzie, age 12. Tony and Suzie, then 6, had been living in New Jersey at the time of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Although the family had not suffered any direct losses, Suzie had seen a great deal of the impact of the attacks. Both Tony and Suzie had struggled with symptoms of post traumatic stress in the years since. Recently, Tony described a conversation he had had with Suzie about an amber alert.
Tony stated, "We were driving home from school, listening to our favorite station, when the amber alert came on. It really rattled Suzie! She turns to me and said, ‘Daddy, this all scares me so much.’ She’s associating the amber alerts with the national threat levels, and I sure am too. All of a sudden we were both on edge. How do I reassure her that everything is ok, when all I could think about is someone kidnapping my little girl, or bombing her school, or another terrorist attack? I just want to tell her not to be scared, but it seems a little hypocritical when I’m scared out of my skin myself!"
I stated to Tony, "It’s a natural urge to comfort a child, just like it is a natural instinct to avoid feelings that are uncomfortable. Wanting to tell Suzie not to be scared is an extension of your urge to protect her. Sometimes, too, parents wanting to comfort their kinds in this way is a little selfish. Uncomfortable feelings like fear are messy, and some parents unconsciously don’t want to deal with that messiness.
"One thing I like to remind parents of is that it is not your job as a parent to make your child’s feelings go away. It is your job as a parent to acknowledge your child’s feelings and to help him or her understand and manage these feelings. A good first step to take in helping Suzie deal with her fears is to focus on managing your own fears first."
4 Aspects of Helping Parents of Traumatized Children Learn How to Manage Their Own Fears
♦ Aspect # 1 - Explore Your Own Fear
I explained to Tony that a good first step in managing his own fears could be to explore his own fears first. I stated, "If Suzie raises a subject that triggers your own fears, it helps to sit down and acknowledge how you are feeling about the subject. When an adult is frightened about the war, they may need to sit down, breathe deeply, or maybe talk out their anxieties with a friend. Before you help Suzie deal with her fears, start with being aware of your fearful feelings.
"Just taking the time to be aware of these feelings might help you feel calmer. Remember, you can’t get rid of your fears. If you’re scared, you’re scared. But you can change your reactions by acknowledging your fear." I suggested that Tony might start hi s acknowledgment of his fears by saying to himself, "I am scared, and that’s ok. This makes me anxious, because it reminds me of…"
♦ Aspect # 2 - Express and Acknowledge their Fears
A second step in helping parents manage their own fears is to encourage parents to express and acknowledge their fears first. As you know, it can be helpful for children who are learning to respond to their own fears to hear parents or trusted adults express how they feel in a confident, even tone of voice. As mentioned in Section 5, this acknowledges the child’s own feelings and lets him or her know it is okay to talk about his or her fearful feelings.
I stated to Tony, "Clearly, telling Suzie ‘I’m so freaked out by this I can’t stand it’ wouldn’t be helpful. But saying calmly that you are scared too is helpful." I acknowledged to Tony that this "psychological two-step" of acknowledging your own fears, checking them at the door, and then stepping over the threshold to help the child with his or her feelings is challenging for many parents.
♦ Technique: Acknowledging My Feelings - 5 Steps
I suggested that Tony might use the Acknowledging My Feelings technique as a reference tool to help him frame discussions of his fears with Suzie.
In a calm voice, state your own fears.
Tell your child one of the ways you manage your own fears. If going for a walk helps you calm down when you are anxious, tell your child about how it helps you.
Offer suggestions to your child, referencing things you know have helped them in the past. For example, you might state, "You look scared. Would you like to draw a picture of how you feel?" Alternately, you might ask, "What would make you feel better," to invite the child to experience a sense of accomplishment in coming up with his or her own solutions. "
If you are having a hard time managing your own emotions during a discussion of your fears, take an honest approach. You might say something like, "Gee, I get a little more upset about this than I wish I did."
If you cannot manage a particular issue, try letting someone else take over. Perhaps your partner may be better able to calmly answer your child’s questions at that particular moment in time.
♦ Aspect # 3 - Remember that Your Fears are Not the Same as the Child’s
In addition to exploring your own fears first and expressing and acknowledging fears, a third aspect of helping parents manage their own fears is to encourage the parent to remember that his or her fears are not the same as the child’s fears. I stated to Tony, "Younger children especially may not be affected the same way as adults by certain stressors. For example, young children may think security checkpoints at airports are kind of fun. However, if the child’s parents are fearful and anxious, the child might also become anxious… not because they fear the checkpoints, but because they are upset that their parents are not acting normally."
My client Arnold, age 8, came into our session very upset. When I asked him what was wrong, he told me that his mother had said that if the war in Iraq kept going, his father Brian, who was in the Army Reserves, might not be able to go on their summer vacation to Disney World. Arnold’s parents were concerned, because they felt Arnold was afraid of the war. When I spoke in depth with Arnold, Arnold revealed that he was not in fact upset about the war. He was upset because he was worried his long anticipated trip would be called off. This, of course, is a very normal fear for a child, but very different from the parent’s fears.
♦ Aspect # 4 - Deciding Whether to Bring up Traumatic News with Children
A fourth aspect regarding helping parents manage their fears is to help parents decide when it is appropriate to bring up traumatic events or news with their children. I stated to Tony, "Children do not benefit from ‘not thinking about it’ or ‘putting it out of their minds’. There is usually no need to bring up traumatic news on your own, but if the child brings it up, don’t avoid discussion.
"Also be on the lookout for "anxiety arousal" cues that indicate your child is troubled, like feeling the need to lock his or her bedroom door at night, which may indicate you should consider asking the child if he or she is troubled. Listening, not avoiding, answering questions, and providing comfort and support will have a critical and long-lasting positive effect."
Think of your Tony. How would you suggest he or she decide whether or not to bring up traumatic news with his or her child?
In this section, we have discussed four aspects of helping parents of children traumatized by secondary or media exposure to terrorist attacks learn how to manage their own fears when talking to their children. These four aspects are; explore your own fears first, express and acknowledge your fears, remember that your fears are not the same as the child’s, and deciding whether to bring up traumatic news with children.
In the next section, we will discuss four stages of children's reactions to disasters and terrorism. These four stages are, the recoil phase, the postimpact phase, the recovery and reconstruction phase, and other reactions.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Gilkey, S. (2010). Review of Treating traumatized children: Risk, resilience and recovery [Review of the book Treating traumatized children: Risk, resilience and recovery, by D. Brom, R. Pat-Horenczyk & J. D. Ford, Eds.]. Traumatology, 16(1), 66–67.
Hock, E., Hart, M., Kang, M. J., & Lutz, W. J. (2004). Predicting Children's Reactions to Terrorist Attacks: The Importance of Self-Reports and Preexisting Characteristics. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 74(3), 253–262.
Marshall, A. D., Roettger, M. E., Mattern, A. C., Feinberg, M. E., & Jones, D. E. (2018). Trauma exposure and aggression toward partners and children: Contextual influences of fear and anger. Journal of Family Psychology, 32(6), 710–721.
Scrimin, S., Moscardino, U., Capello, F., Altoè, G., & Axia, G. (2009). Recognition of facial expressions of mixed emotions in school-age children exposed to terrorism. Developmental Psychology, 45(5), 1341–1352.
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