Fall 2012
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Coping with Crisis


Children can experience fear and anxiety after horrific events like last summer's movie theater attack in Colorado 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 Colorado movie theater July 20, 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."

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.
Coping with Crisis

Good Health for Kids is produced by Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas.