Children, especially young children, may experience a cascade of emotions when faced with stress resulting from exposure to the disturbing terrorist attack on Boston.
“These emotions may include fear, anxiety, discouragement, isolation and even anger,” says Sean Brotherson, North Dakota State University Extension Family Science Specialist. “Such emotions may last for a time and are best dealt with by kindness, patience and understanding on the part of parents and other adults.”
Children who express emotional strain due to the terrorist incident may be responding to at least four sources of stress:
• They are dealing with the sudden and unexpected confusion in society and the effects on their feelings of security.
• They may have to cope with a disturbance in life routines because of news media coverage, school security or other changes.
• They may be responding to increased patterns of stress and difficulty felt by parents and other adults.
• They are responding to stress associated with constant news media coverage and repetition of terrifying events.
The feelings and emotional reactions expressed by a child under stress should be expected and are normal, according to Brotherson. A child is especially anxious when he or she does not understand what is happening in the family or to his or her environment. Adults should be sensitive to this reality and reassure the child.
“A child may ask a parent who traveled recently if he or she was in Boston or if he or she knows anyone who lives there,” Brotherson says. “Children may view increased parental distress, media coverage of the bombings or related conversations among adults as personally threatening or distressing. It is not unusual for children to be concerned about and even fearful about the impact on themselves or others they know.”
Some common components of a child’s emotional reactions may include:
• Shock—may not believe the problems are really happening.
• Physical symptoms—may experience headaches or stomach problems.
• Anger—may focus on his or her needs or be upset with parents or others who are responding to stress or toward those responsible for the incident.
• Anxiety—may worry that he or she has contributed to problems in some way.
• Fear—may wonder what will happen next or fear being alone or away from parents.
• Sadness—may show a decreased interest in activities or become withdrawn.
A child may express stress differently according to age, maturity level and previous experience. Adults should pay attention to symptoms and behaviors that a child may exhibit. They include:
• Crying and whining— Children may become upset easily, cry frequently or unexpectedly and whine.
• Aggression—Children may feel out of control and become angry. They may yell, threaten, hit, kick or throw things without reason.
• Sleep problems—Children may be afraid of sleeping alone or being left, so they may have difficulty going to bed or napping. They may wake often and have a troubled sleep or nightmare. They may not want to sleep alone.
• Fear of being alone—A young child may fear being alone or separated from loved ones. He or she may refuse to go to school or child care and may want to stay close to the parent or stay in sight of the parents. A child may feel neglect due to the adults around him or her being busy or stressed.
• Regressive behaviors— A young child may exhibit behaviors he or she did while younger, such as thumb sucking, clinging to adults or wetting the bed. This pattern tends to indicate anxiety or insecurity.
• Illness—A child may be physically affected by stress and experienced nausea, vomiting, headaches, stomach problems, fever or other symptoms.
• Withdrawal or restlessness— A child may become quiet and withdrawn or become more active and restless than usual. Changes in a child’s normal behavior pattern should be watched carefully.
• Feelings of loss—A child may express sadness or grief due to the losses he or she learns about.
“Parents and other adults need to take the time to answer the questions posed by children, reassure them of their safety and security and provide them with opportunities to relieve the stress or anxiety that they may feel,” Brotherson says.
There are a variety of strategies that parents or other adults can use in helping children deal with stress. These strategies are included in the NDSU Extension publication “Talking to Children About Terrorism.” It is available at www.ag.ndsu.edu/familyscience/terrorism.
For additional information, contact Brotherson at (701) 231-6143, firstname.lastname@example.org; Kim Bushaw, (701) 231-7450, email@example.com; or our office at 254-4811 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.