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How To Help Children During Traumatic Events

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Living through major historical events — like the worst pandemic in a century and the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — has been trying for adults. It can be tough on kids too, but there are steps that can be taken to make it a little easier.

Throughout a deadly pandemic and one of the most divisive political periods in U.S. history, it can be difficult to tear yourself away from the screen. That was even more true in early January, when the post-holiday coronavirus spike tore through the country, rioters overtook the U.S. Capitol and the president was impeached for the second time.

It’s stressful. And not just for grownups.

"Children — depending on the age — it's often hard for them to know what is real and what is not real and to know how close something might be to them or how much they may or may not be in danger based on what they're seeing," said Dr. Amanda Morris, a regents professor in human development and family science and a developmental psychologist at Oklahoma State University.

Morris has been in the field for 20 years, and one of her research focuses has been on child emotional development in the wake of tragedy.

"One of the most robust findings in the literature is on avoiding watching media and screens and repeating traumatic events. And so that's been shown in a number of studies from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina to to other natural disasters and then manmade disasters," said Morris.

For children and adults, these events can trigger a trauma response, such as severe anxiety or nightmares. Seeing it on a loop can worsen the effects.

"Watching it over and over again, particularly if it's something that's really salient to you, it can be re-traumatizing. And for children, one of the best things that we can do is sort of minimize their exposure to these events over and over again," said Morris.

Cutting down on exposure is not the only tool a parent can use to help their kids through this weird, difficult and trying time.

"It's also having conversations and helping children understand what's going on in that they're safe and that you're going to work as hard as you can to keep them safe, having discussions about how they might be feeling, help them label those feelings, and then having a broader discussion about how this might fit in with what's going on in the world and around democracy," said Morris.

For children, like adults, it’s not possible to avoid the realities of the world today. And they shouldn’t. But children need context, and to understand there are brighter days ahead.

Catherine Sweeney reports for StateImpact Oklahoma, focusing on health.
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