Young Children and Difficult Changes
As families experience difficult changes and experiences, children are also experiencing it in their own way. It is important to know that children can come through difficulties such as the death of a loved one, a significant change event , and even trauma in a healthy way if the adults caring for them guide them effectively. As a therapist in the Washington, DC, Bethesda area, I’ve helped countless families work through change and trauma adaptively. The following information and suggestions may be useful to you if your family has experienced a difficult life event such as death, divorce/separation, family move, long-term illness, substance use, or a traumatic event. This information is aligned with guidance from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network
- Typical Reactions to Having a Scary Experience (*Preschool – Second Grade)
→ Helpful Ways Adults Can Respond
- Increased fear: may feel afraid of things they are not usually afraid of (the dark, monsters, sirens, being alone in a room, etc.)
→Tell them that it’s okay to be afraid. Everyone gets scared sometimes. Reassure their safety. (ie, family is with you & watching you. We lock our doors. We love you so much!) Acknowledge and reassure safety, however be mindful of not “lingering” on the subject for long periods of time.
- Increased worry/anxiety: may not want to leave caretakers
→Provide very consistent & predictable care taking and routines. Prepare them about when they will be picked up, who will be there, etc., even if it is the same routine as previously.
- Confusion: may not understand that the danger is over; may not understand death (dead people get fixed up)
→Give repetitive, exact information appropriate for age (ie, When someone dies, their body stops working and we don’t see them anymore. We will always love and remember them.)
- Increased tantrums or irritable outbursts
→Provide loving support. Still must provide limits on tantrum behavior. Talk about helpful ways to handle sadness, fear, anger, frustration (draw, talk to someone, play a game, exercise, dance, sing, play with a stuffed animal, get a drink of water). Make a plan together that both of you can use.
- Sleep disturbances (may want to stay with caretakers, have nightmares, or have difficulty falling asleep)
→Encourage child to tell their caretaker whenever this happens in order for them to keep track of how often this is occurring. Provide a consistent, predictable bedtime routine. Talk about ways to help them fall asleep (think about what they are looking forward to tomorrow, say a prayer, bedtime story, etc.)
- Regressive Behaviors (wetting pants/bed, thumb-sucking, baby talk)
→Tolerate this for a short period of time. Remind them of how proud you are of them. Remind them about how they were able to stay dry before & you know they can do it again. Avoid shaming the child.
- Repetitive play (or talk) about the scary event
→Help child to talk about what they are playing. Help them talk about what they are thinking about.
- Withdrawal: may not want to interact with peers
→Be sensitive & tolerate for a short period. Do not force interaction. Gently encourage & gradually increase interactions with others.
- Delay in talking about the event: child may mention the scary event days, weeks, or months after it has occurred
→Talk to them when they bring it up! Allow child to talk about what they remember, how they feel about it, & what they are worried about. Remember, if they bring it up, it is important to them!
- Young children are strongly affected by the emotional reactions of parents, teachers, or other adults. If an adult panics, the child will also.
- Violent movies, video games, & TV shows also can trigger fear in children. Do not allow children to watch these programs/movies EVEN if they want to.
- Reactions may not occur immediately after a difficult event. Watch carefully for changes in your child’s behaviors a few months down the road.
- Most importantly, be there for your children. Be loving, understanding, and provide a listening ear so that you are always aware of their thoughts & feelings.
- Ask for help from your school social worker or counselor if you have further questions.
- Contact a child behavioral health professional for support if behavior persists.