Helping children in times of trauma

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

School counsellors and psychologists are hard at work helping children comprehend and come to terms with the recent terrorist attacks in the US. Aaron Gray-Block writes.


As Dutch police patrolled the grounds of the Americam School of Rotterdam to protect the safety of students last week, it was apparent that a great tragedy had occurred.

The financial heart of New York lay in ruins, the Pentagon had been in flames and investigators were continuing to probe the site of a plane crash near Pittsburgh.

The US had experienced the deadliest terrorist attack in its history and images of destruction were being broadcast around the world.

As the Rotterdam school tried to come to terms with the immense tragedy of last week, the school's counsellor was advising parents and teachers how to cope and care for their children.

Counsellor Mary Rennebohm says a child's response to trauma can progress through several phases such as fear, loss of control, anger, loss of stability, isolation and grief and loss.

"With young children, grief is often postponed," the elementary (primary) school counsellor says.

In view of this, Rennebohm says the long-term observation of a child's emotional response is highly important. Behaviour patterns need to be monitored, she says.

But Rennebohm also outlines to parents and teachers several issues and methods of response to quickly intervene in a child's reaction to the terrorist attacks.

Firstly, she says, it is important for teachers or parents to display calm and controlled behaviour because "children take their cues from the adults around them". It is vital to prevent children from seeing their parents or teachers acting anxious or nervous, she says.

Rennebohm also says parents and teachers need to reassure children about their safety and that they must explain to them that the World Trade Center was a symbol of power that the terrorists wanted to strike at and that schools and homes were generally considered safe.

Children also needed to be reminded that there were trustworthy people in control and responding to the situation, such as firefighters, police and rescue workers, she says.

It is also important to let children know that it is okay to feel upset and that all feelings are okay, even anger. They need to talk about it, Rennebohm says, and they need to put it into perspective. They need diverse means to express their feelings.

Telling the truth is also important because children will be more worried if parents or teachers are afraid about telling the truth.

The language you use should also be adapted to the age of the children, Rennebohm says. You also need to stick to the facts and you must not exaggerate or dwell on the tragedy.

She urges parents and teachers to keep explanations appropriate to a child's age level and ensure elementary school children that their daily routines will not change.

Teenagers might also wish to suggest actions that should be taken, solutions to and/or opinions on the crisis. Let them, Rennebohm says.

But she says young children should have limited access to any television footage of the attacks because they may find it difficult to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Meanwhile, an elementary school psycholgist and counsellor, who asked to remain anonymous, says that providing forums for children to express how they feel is also necessary.

These forums could range from artistic modes of expression, group discussions and/or therapy and that individual counselling sessions might also be useful.

The psychologist identifies three stages of response to trauma such as grief, loss and anxiety and also urged parents and/or teachers to keep a close watch on how a child continued to respond to the tragedy in the US.

She says it is also important to allow children to contribute something they think might help alleviate the crisis, such as raising money for charity.

And this is exactly what the British School in the Netherlands in Voorschoten has arranged.

The school principal, Trevor Rowell, says students have arranged a day next week to collect money for the International Red Cross.

He says the school has also sent special condolences to the Americam community and that flags were at half-mast last week as it honoured those directly involved in the tragedy.

The website of the American Academy of Pediatrics also says that adolescents can be hard hit by tragedies such as the terrorist attacks and that parents might want to watch for signs such as: sleep disturbances, fatigue, lack of pleasure in activities enjoyed previously and illicit substance use.

The academy also says it's unwise to let children or adolescents repeatedly view footage of traumatic events, and children and adolescents should not watch these events alone.

19 September 2001

Many other websites offer a range of information, but if you have serious concerns about your child, advice and assistance should be sought from a professional counsellor and/or health professional.

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