We asked Dr. Jamie Howard, a trauma specialist with the Child Mind Institute, for tips on helping children cope with trauma.
Q: What are some typical reactions kids have in the wake of a trauma?
In the immediate aftermath, it’s very typical for kids to be more clingy or distracted. They may cry a little bit more easily, or seem more fidgety or hyperactive because they still have a lingering fight-or-flight response. Children may also worry about separating from the important grown-ups in their life, and they may be very concerned about the safety of others, including their pets.
Older children also may be more anxious and hyperactive, which may look like impulsive behavior in the classroom and wanting to talk a lot about the recent shooting. Teens will want to discuss the reasons why this keeps happening and what they can do about it to keep themselves safe. They tend to rely less on grown-ups to keep them safe and think more about what they personally can do.
Q: How does a child’s age affect her perception and understanding of traumatic events?
Preschool and early elementary students are still in the age of magical thinking. They try to infer causality, but they do it in ways that wouldn’t make sense to adults. So they may think, “The shooting happened on a Friday, so Fridays must be dangerous days,” or “I wore a pink shirt that day and bad things happen when I wear pink.”
Around third or fourth grade, students begin to shift to concrete thinking and to focus on right and wrong. They may think, “This bad guy should be punished. He broke a rule. Why did he break a rule?” They don’t yet understand complexity and are black-and-white thinkers.
Teens will think more about the complicated factors that are at play, such as gun laws and the desperation that can lead to such destructive behavior.
Q: How do kids process and deal with traumatic events?
Younger kids may process trauma through play. Right after a trauma, it is completely typical for children to “play” the trauma. That can be really upsetting to grown-ups. It’s hard for us to see a child in distress trying to make sense of tragic or overwhelming situations. Instead of overreacting, ask questions. Something that looks disturbing to us may actually be a child’s way of making sense of the situation. Older kids are more likely to talk about the trauma, to process it through conversation.
Q: How can teachers help?
Be patient. Set aside time for check-ins and make sure your students have someone they can talk to. Set up a system so that the child can discreetly leave the room if he or she needs a few minutes to talk to the guidance counselor or a school psychologist.
Also, communicate with parents; together, you can more effectively monitor symptoms and progress. Help the kids label their feelings; the simple act of acknowledging one’s feelings and accurately labeling them is therapeutic. After the first couple of days, return to your regular routines and expectations. Consistency helps children feel safe.
Q: What are some indications that a child might need professional intervention?
If a child is still having a lot of difficulties in the classroom months after a trauma, they may have post-traumatic stress disorder. If their symptoms are interfering with their ability to pay attention and learn in school, it may be time for clinical intervention.