Beirut explosion: Helping children cope with trauma
The Beirut explosion disrupted the lives of dozens of children on the fourth day of this month.
Following such an incident, children can develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTSD), which may persist long after the disaster. PTSD symptoms in children include persistent nightmares, flashbacks, avoidance of trauma-reminders, trouble sleeping or concentrating, and loss of interest in pleasurable activities.
The age at which memories can be verbalized by children depends on their cognitive abilities and onset of speech.
The earlier the trauma occurs, the more difficult it is for a child to organize their memories into a narrative that makes sense.
Children typically relate to the parts that are significant to them or within their verbal abilities.
Studies show that our early memory system is functional in infancy and so a child at two-and-a-half years is able to remember events that happened when they were 15-months-old.
Similarly, a child at five-and-a-half years is able to remember events that happened when they were four.
There is an urgent need for adults, parents, caregivers and school teachers to be aware of this information.
In order to provide young children with the right type of support that will help them cope with and overcome this traumatic experience.
How parents and caregivers can help
When destruction is massive, sudden, and covered by the media on a large scale, it cannot be ignored.
The idea that children cannot be protected from such gruesome scenes on television (whether they experienced the trauma firsthand or are watching the scenes from home) will inevitably create an added source of stress for them.
As the Beirut explosion unfolded, many parents were unable to hide their own, instant, reactions to the incident from their children, and were later forced to answer questions they were unprepared for.
Young children usually ask questions like “what do dead people look like?” or “does getting blown up hurt?”.
It’s important for parents to have open communication patterns with their young children by talking, listening, sharing and answering questions honestly.
As well as encouraging them to express their fears rather than suppress or deny them.
Death is often a taboo topic that’s rarely discussed with young children.
Parents tend to hide certain facts or try to use child-friendly language that can be quite confusing to a very young child.
For example, if two four-year-old boys, who attend the same school, are exposed to the same explosion (firsthand or to scenes of it on television) and discuss the incident with their parents this way:
Boy 1: “Did X get blown up in the explosion?”.
Parents 1: “Yes, they did.”
Boy 2: “Did X get blown up in the explosion?”.
Parents 2: “No, X fell over from the explosion, hit their head on the curb and died.”
Then eventually, the two boys will talk amongst themselves about the explosion and the first boy will most likely share what his parents had told him.
Which could possibly cause an additional shock to the second boy, as well as create some sort of mistrust towards his parents.
This is another example of how using vague language when explaining death to children can cause further complications:
Mom: “X went to heaven to be with God.”
Child: “Is X an angel?”
Mom: “Yes, she’s a special angel.”
Child: “Will I be an angel someday too?”
“Why does God want us to go up to heaven?”
“How can X be up in heaven when she is buried in the ground?”
As you could tell from the conversation above, children are very curious and if vague answers are used to answer their question, that will only entice them to ask more questions until they’ve been given a reasonable answer.
Moreover, if children are not given facts, they might wonder about the same issue for years to come and possibly imagine something much worse than the reality.
Another tactic parents should try doing is to bring back normal roles and routines and allow young children to pursue playing disaster-related games, drawing pictures of the explosion or use toys to reenact aspects of the trauma.
It is necessary for trauma survivors, as well as children who were affected by the news from afar, to re-experience their trauma in the context of a safe environment (provided by professionals and experts).
The child should be allowed to play out every aspect of their experience for the purpose of mastery, which helps reduce the feelings of helplessness that’s associated with the trauma, in order to eventually make sense of what happened.
Parents should also expect and be OK with instances of regression to outgrown behaviors, such as bed wetting, as those are part of the child’s coping mechanism.
Also, when children are showing difficulty in sleeping, parents should be accommodating but also try to keep a routine by providing comfort and some “relaxation interventions,” such as a night light, favorite stuffed animal, some music, singing or storytelling.
What can teachers do?
Establishing and practicing an evacuation plan in schools can save the lives of young children and minimize the effects of trauma.
While young children will need extra understanding and patience, teachers should maintain their usual expectations of a child’s behavior and performance.
This reinforces the idea of keeping a predictable and consistent routine that provides a sense of safety.
Teachers should also acknowledge their own fears and feelings in order to be able to help children in the classroom.
Educators can also teach coping strategies to young children.
One example is play-based activities, where children use toys and other materials to reenact events.
Suggested materials may include ambulances, police cars, helicopters and family figures.
Physical activities can also be encouraged at school as they release stress and anxiety.
Moreover, art activities help children express their fears symbolically, which might stimulate children to talk about their experience by having a teacher ask them to draw whatever comes to mind or suggest a specific topic.
Finally, teachers can encourage their young students to use puppet shows and storytelling activities that help them talk about what happened during or after the traumatic event.
Doing these activities as groups in the classroom will promote a sense of shared experience, which gives an opportunity to filter out cognitive distortions.
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