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Your Questions and Our Answers About
What to Do When There's No Calm After the Storm
So many of you had urgent questions about what you were seeing happen to your kids as the national chaos and crisis began on September 11, 2001, that we responded on September 12th with an article entitled How to Help Traumatized Children sent to more than 15,000 subscribers to our Behavior and Classroom Management Problem-Solver Blog.
We addressed your queries with that article of help and resources for teachers, mental health counselors, and other youth workers. That article generated a flood of additional questions on how to help traumatized children and youth. To manage that flood of inquiries, a second guide was created to respond, and was published on September 14th. That article is reprinted below.
Both articles should be of use not only following national disasters like 9/11, but the information should apply to other types of trauma that children can face. Both articles were sent to subscribers of our free Behavior and Classroom Management Problem-Solver Blog. To subscribe free, click here.
Your Questions and Our Answers
About Traumatized Students
When There's No Calm After the Storm
First Published 9-14-01, Authored by Ruth Herman Wells, M.S.
Many of our Behavior and Classroom Management Problem-Solver Blog subscribers responded to the special issue sent 9/12/01. We read each response and found tremendous comfort and hope in your comments. It was especially wonderful to hear from so many of you who have taken our Breakthrough Strategies to Teach and Counsel Troubled Youth Workshop over the years.
As requested, that special issue is now posted live on our site. Information on permission for reprinting is posted at the end of the article.
Because of the urgency of many of your questions, we are working hard to have your responses in your email box as early on Friday as we can. Right now, it is 2 AM Friday morning on the West Coast and the news programs report few, if any, signs of calm after the storm. As I type, the news is full of new airport closures, arrests, bomb scares, evacuations, demolition and death. Your job comforting your children may have just begun. Here are the answers to the questions you have been emailing to us.
HOW CAN I TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN "NORMAL" FEAR AND OBSESSION?
You can't always tell the difference initially, but time will give you the answer. As the child's peers return to the routine and rhythm of their old lives, or find ways to adapt to a newly terrifying world, it is the child who remains behind in fear who may have a problem.
CAN YOU BE MORE SPECIFIC ABOUT TELLING THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN "NORMAL" WORRY AND "TOO MUCH" WORRYING
"Normal" reactions are age-appropriate responses that should get gradually or rapidly better. For example, a six-year-old who lives far from the actual terrorist incidents, but has been watching the TV news, might want to sleep in Mom's room for a few days or balk at separating from Mom to go to school. The same response in an older teen whose only connection to the trauma was also the TV news, would be much more of concern.
Watch for at least gradual improvement in symptoms once the chaos abates. Should this chaos become our world, watch for gradual adaptation. Absent the improvement or adaptation, the child may have a problem.
WHY DO SOME CHILDREN SEEM TO BE SO MUCH MORE AFFECTED THAN OTHERS?
There are many possible explanations for the range of reactions children show. But one answer to always at least consider is that the child who remains frightened to the point of some impairment, may have underlying (or visible) crises or problems that left them vulnerable to the first big, new stress they encountered. If you are ever concerned about the safety or emotional well-being of one of your charges, and you are not a mental health professional, be sure to always seek the consult of someone who is.
HOW CAN I GET CHILDREN TO FOCUS ON SCHOOL WORK AND OTHER TASKS WHEN THEY APPEAR SCARED, WORRIED OR DISTRACTED?
First, strike the balance between being sensitive to the child's distress and accomplishing your tasks. That balance can shift daily, hourly, etc. For example, if there is another huge incident, you might tilt the balance towards accommodating the distress. Similarly, following a lengthy period of relative calm, you may want to increase your expectations. Notice that you still keep losing your car keys, and you have since Tuesday. You've also noticed that there doesn't seem to be any way to "force" yourself to pay attention better and hang onto those keys. The same is true with kids. You can't force people to cope better than they already are.
CAN YOU SUGGEST SOME WAYS TO HELP CHILDREN WHO ARE OBVIOUSLY OBSESSIVELY WORRYING, TO BE ABLE TO HAVE SOME RELIEF?
For younger children, do as one parent did, and get out a map to show the distance between you and the current problems. Also, stress how the adults will be ensuring safety. Older kids can be encouraged to write poetry, make collages, counsel younger children, donate a portion of their allowance to the relief efforts, volunteer to give blood, donate time to a relief agency, or make posters that encourage the U.S. to triumph over the current troubled times. Have students read about Anne Frank, Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou and others who marshaled their fear.
ANY MORE IDEAS?
For the children who are worrying nonstop, to the detriment of school and other crucial activities, have the child draw or write their fears, then put them in an envelope and you (the adult) will worry about them for a while. If permitted, give the child a positive phrase or saying they can recite, such as the Alcoholics Anonymous serenity prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
WHAT DO I SAY TO CHILDREN ABOUT FEAR WITHOUT SOUNDING MACHO OR UNREALISTIC?
You can say that fear is normal and unavoidable. Even heroes feel fear. Everyone does. Fear keeps you from walking out in traffic. Not recommended to say: "You're big enough not to be scared." Comments like that can help aim kids towards ulcers and alcohol. Tell them: We all feel what we feel so we might as well all accept it. What can we control? How we respond to the fear. Being overwhelmed by fear at times is normal. The goal to suggest: accept the fear but don't let it run your life.
AND IF NONE OF THESE IDEAS WORK TO ALLEVIATE THE CONSTANT WORRY AND FEAR?
Worst case scenario: Teach the child to think "Cancel" every time s/he has an upsetting thought. And, for all of us to remember, both kids and adults: It's always darkest just before the dawn…
Youth Change Workshops is always here to help youth professionals help troubled and traumatized students.
We hope these answers to questions that you never imagined you would ever have to ask, will be timely and useful. If we didn't answer your question, then be sure to ask us. Youth professionals can call 1.800.545.5736 or email.
Our Breakthrough Strategies to Teach and Counsel Troubled Youth Workshops have more strategies for troubled and traumatized students.