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Traumatized Children:


How to Help

What Every Teacher, Counselor, Mental Health Worker,
Therapist & Psychologist Needs to Know

author Ruth Herman WellsAuthor's Note: This article was first published September 12, 2001, the day after 9/11.

I'm Youth Change Workshops Director, Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. This article was created in response to the flood of requests for help that Youth Change Workshops received in the first hours after the tragedies.

Within hours, this article was sent to subscribers of our free Behavior and Classroom Management Problem-Solver Blog (click here to subscribe). It is reprinted here and maintained online at the request of teachers, counselors, social workers, and other youth professionals who continue to ask for it.

Since 9/11, this information has since been used to help teachers, mental health workers, and others in Gulf Coast communities ravaged by Katrina, and has been presented in the Gulf Coast area many times as part of our Breakthrough Strategies to Teach and Counsel Troubled Youth Workshop. This article generates much feedback every time there is a region affected by a natural disaster or severe traumatic event so although this article focuses on the trauma generated by 9/11, we're certain that you'll find that this information can be easily adapated and used following any devastating event.

How to Help Traumatized Children

Authored by Ruth Herman Wells. First published 9-12-01

Tuesday, September 11, 2001 was a terrible day for the United States. Youth Change Workshops extends it's sympathy to those of you who have lost loved ones in this tragedy.

As tough as Tuesday was for adults, it can be even tougher for children. There is no magic formula for assisting children to cope with events that all of us struggle to understand and manage, but here are some basis "do's" and "don'ts" to help guide you to best aid the young people in your world.


Special Populations to Notice:


1. Younger Children

Younger children, about ages 5-8, can sometimes understand more than they can process. Many children under age 5 or so, will probably be somewhat spared the brunt of the impact. The abstract concept of death may somewhat elude them, for example.

Children who are a bit older may clearly comprehend many aspects of Tuesday's events, but have little ability to manage the feelings that arise. This age group may be especially expected to have nightmares, somatic complaints, sleeping problems, or more difficulty than normal with both everyday and stressful situations.

Do not maintain customary expectations for coping. For example: be more tolerant of somatic complaints and especially avoid comments like "But you can normally sleep alone!"

Provide increased level of nurturing and contact. Most important: assist with coping skills. To do so, make fears concrete and manageable. Example: "It's normal to have trouble sleeping alone after a scary thing happens."

Teach the child to limit the time spent thinking about the scary things, and show the child how to distract himself or herself. Encourage verbalizing concerns, and model that with sentences like "I was scared too when I saw the plane hit the building." Do not squelch, limit, or negatively react to any verbalizations of fear, anxiety or stress. Instead, emphasize the normalcy of that reaction.

Concrete action is important for these youngsters who do not always grasp abstract concepts. Have the child collect donations for the Red Cross, help pack blankets to send to New York shelters, or other similar activities. Action can teach these children that sad things happen, but rather than wallow or dwell, we can use our sadness to make the bad situation just a little bit better. That is a valuable lifelong skill for coping.

2. Children in Stress

Children who are already faced troubling times, may have special difficulty when the world becomes turbulent. These children include kids in crisis, children with mental health problems, drug-affected youth, kids from troubled homes, abused kids and others.

As these children face an array of problems, there is no easy, one-size-fits-all answer to give. However, do increase supervision, be ready for deterioration, monitor medications, and be alert for substance abuse and other problematic "coping" methods. Use the strategies noted above for young children, as appropriate.

Be especially tuned into thought-disordered and severely depressed youth who so often seriously deteriorate when the world seems far scarier or sadder than usual. Watch for self-harm. Any child who has lived with abuse or other horrible circumstances can be expected to "over-personalize" the situation and "over-react." Be tolerant of these reactions; given the child's pre-existing challenges, these are "normal" reactions to abnormal times.

Even veteran mental health professionals sometimes struggle to assist children facing trauma. Certainly youth workers like teachers and juvenile police officers, who may lack extensive mental health training, may wonder what to do– or not do– to help. While we can't condense our dozens of resources for traumatized children and youth into a brief article, we can give you a few of the most useful tips and tools that you will need to help bring solace and perhaps some measure of peace to traumatized, sad, depressed, withdrawn, and profoundly troubled children and youth.


General Do's and Don'ts

1. Be Flexible

Be willing to put aside scheduled activities to help kids manage the tragedy– whether it's "your job" or not to do so. You can't learn or do other activities when profoundly worried, frightened or distracted and neither can kids.

2. Reassure

Talk about other challenges that this country has faced and how the country surmounted them. For example, if you remember President Kennedy's assassination, talk about how scary that felt to you and how the country overcame the crisis.

3. Relate

Give specific details from your childhood, such your reaction to the JFK assassination, to show how today's children can overcome today's trauma.

4. Be Honest, But Concise

Convey information at an age-appropriate level, but keep it brief, and don't unnecessarily add scary details. Don't sugar-coat it; even kindergartners can read your vibes.

5. Limit Exposure to Violence

Do not allow children and teens to watch the news nonstop. Be especially thoughtful about their exposure to violent movies, books, games, etc. during this time, especially near bed time or when they must concentrate on learning or another task.

6. Strive for Eventual Closure

No one really can make sense out of Tuesday, but eventually you may want to help give a sense of closure as best you can. This may mean looking for any good at all that can result, such as our country is now more unified. Or, the closure may be more spiritual or just the acceptance that time brings. Stress that time normally eases most pain.

7. Acceptance

Troubled kids often act in ways that are problematic. Accept deterioration without blaming.

Since the crisis began, you may have noticed that you've had difficulty remembering where you put your car keys, or maybe you've had trouble concentrating at work. This is normal. If I criticize you for losing your car keys, that just exacerbates your situation, doesn't it?

Kids can evidence their distress in similar or more dramatic ways. Don't give them additional burdens to bear by downgrading them for their deterioration. It doesn't mean that you accept or permit behavior problems, but that you take into consideration the context as you determine your reaction.

Bookmark this site so we can be there for you when you need us next. Youth Change is always here to help youth professionals help troubled youth and children. Contact us by calling 1.800.545.5736 or email us.

Read about Author/Trainer Ruth Herman Wells, M.S.

Permission granted to reprint this article without charge one time for personal use. To reprint this article without charge in your publication, or to make multiple copies, request permission from Youth Change, by contacting us.

Need More Help?

Read Answers to Your Questions About Children and Trauma, a follow-up article. Our Child's Guide to Surviving in a Troubled Family may also be of help. It has lesson plans and worksheets designed to make the difficult subject matter a little easier for children and teens to understand, accept and cope with.

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