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Healthy living: Helping children cope with tragedy

There is no question: Over the last few months we’ve experienced some very difficult times. These recent incidents have been hard for many of us to understand.

As an adult, wanting to understanding the “why’s” and “how’s” can be hard to cope with. For children, many of whom don’t quite fully comprehend the situation and look to adults for answers, this is even harder.

According to Mental Health America, children can sense the anxiety and tension in adults around them. And, like adults, children experience the same feelings of helplessness and lack of control that tragedy-related stress can bring about. Unlike adults, however, children have little experience to help them place their current situation into perspective.

While children respond differently to tragedy, depending on their understanding and maturity, it’s easy to see how an event like last week’s can create a great deal of anxiety in all children. That’s because they often times interpret the tragedy as a personal danger to themselves and those they care about.

Helping children cope

Whatever the child’s age or relationship to the damage caused by tragedy, it’s important that the adults around them be open about the consequences, and encourage them to talk about it. Dr. Jonathan Schwab, a pediatrician at Northampton Area Pediatrics, recommends the following:

• Give children plenty of comfort and reassurance, reminding them that there are good people (police officers, firefighters, volunteers, etc.) working to keep us safe.

• Talk to your child about the events. Be honest and open about the tragedy or disaster.

• Underscore how rare these events are, and that this is not common.

• Try to maintain your daily routines as much as possible.

Look for signs

Depending on a child’s age, the signs and symptoms of tragedy related anxiety can differ. For pre-school age children, habits such as bed-wetting, thumb sucking, baby talk, or a fear of sleeping alone may intensify or even reappear in children who had previously outgrown them. Older children may begin to ask frequent questions about the tragedy.

Whatever the age, Schwab recommends limiting the amount of media coverage the child is exposed to. While it can be easy for adults to become “glued” to the television to keep up on the latest developments, doing so often increases the anxiety felt by children who don’t complete understand what they are seeing. And, of course, if your child is very sad or anxious and nothing you are doing is helping, call your doctor.

Children who are personally affected by tragedy through a death of a loved one should seek additional help from a support group, such as The Garden: A Center for Grieving Children and Teens, the bereavement support program of the Hampshire Regional YMCA. These groups are specifically designed to create a place for children — and adults — to grieve in a supportive and understanding environment.

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