The recent tragedy in Newtown, Conn., can be frightening for anyone — not just those directly affected by the event. Children are particularly vulnerable and recognizing children’s symptoms of stress is not always easy.

“Children will be affected by the amount of direct exposure they have had to the disaster,” said Karen DeBord, Virginia Cooperative Extension family and human development specialist in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech. “Those outside of Newtown will be dealing with a secondary response. Adults can help children cope by listening and sensing children’s feelings.  Adults should take care NOT to impose their adult worries and fears on children.”

According to DeBord, who supports Extension agents in Virginia who conduct educational programs for parents and families, children mirror adult responses to stressful situations. So parents and childcare teachers can be sensitive without causing the children to fret

“Children are very aware of adults’ worries most of the time, but they are particularly sensitive during the period of a disaster,” said DeBord. “Acknowledging your concerns to the children is as important as your ability to cope with stress.”

DeBord said another factor that affects a child’s response is his or her developmental age. Talking about the disaster using words the child can understand is as important as being sensitive to their unique responses. It is important to listen to children’s individual concerns and to be alert to signs of difficulty.

Children who are stressed may exhibit one of more of the following reactions:

  • Sleep disorders
  • Persistent thoughts of trauma
  • Belief that another bad event will occur
  • Changes in what is normal conduct for the child
  • Hyper-alertness
  • Avoidance of stimulus or similar events
  • Abnormal fidgeting
  • Regression, such as thumb sucking or bedwetting
  • Dependent behaviors or need to be close to a secure adult all of the time
  • Obsession with the event

“It is also important to limit children’s exposure to the news coverage of the event. Otherwise, their fears will build as they think the tragedy continues,” said DeBord.

Since children are concrete thinkers (as opposed to abstract thinkers) DeBord encourages parents to offer children ways to touch and manipulate objects to deal with their feelings. For example, she suggests play items relative to the disaster, such as puppets, playhouses, and play-people, as well as selecting books that address fear or anxiety to serve as conversation starters.

“It is important to be involved with your children's education and school,” DeBord said. “Know what your school’s emergency response plan is and have input in teaching and safety procedures.”



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