Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Child Goes Missing: Helping the Community's Other Children Cope

Our communities face difficult challenges every day but occasionally encounter situations that shake the very foundation of our sense of predictability and safety in the world.  These experiences can leave us needing to manage feelings of fear, anger, anxiety, and helplessness. Right now, our community is in the midst of coping with the unexplained, extended disappearance of a tiny, vulnerable child, a situation that strikes an anguished chord and generates powerful feelings for anyone who hears about it.  It is a “worst fear” scenario and one so rare that it can be difficult for parents and professionals to find a good “roadmap” for coping with it.  

Children do go missing, though and there are national organizations that provide expert resources for communities, schools, professionals, and parents who need to help children cope with the unthinkable.  

The most specific resources located in developing this resource are on the websites of these three national organizations.  If you are interested in more information, these links will provide you with a lot of useful ideas and approaches including recommendations for parents and other involved adults.   

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network:  http://www.nctsn.org/content/psychological-first-aid  

The resources provided by these sites offer a great deal of common agreement on what is important and what works.  Some of these ideas are bulleted here for your convenience.  They are a place to start in helping the children in your care avoid traumatic outcomes.

  • Frightened children are not safer children.    Parents who manage their own feelings, stay calm and reassuring and talk to their children in terms they can understand  have the best chance of effectively teaching their children mastery of the concepts and skills that will protect them.    
  • Children quickly pick up adult distress.  They are easily upset by the drama of media events and attention. 
  • Media events, drama, and coverage can produce increased fears and anxiety in children.
  • The more time children spend participating in or watching media coverage or adult discussion of the events, the more likely they are to have negative reactions.
  • Graphic images and stories of loss may be particularly upsetting to children.
  • Paying attention to your child’s feelings and understanding is the best way to determine what is working for them and what is not helping. 
  • Creating opportunities to talk with your child about what they are seeing and hearing and how they understand it will give you valuable insights into how they are thinking about the situation and whether they are feeling safe and protected
  • Children are often included in or otherwise exposed to well meaning community events such as prayer vigils or shrines of hope.  Older children, in particular, may want to participate, to express their prayers or good will.  Parents and schools should be vigilant, though, to make sure that the experience remains voluntary and positive for the child regardless of their age.  Children should not be forced to participate in adult venues in ways that dramatize or reinforce anguished over-identification, frighten them or make them uncomfortable. 
  • While there is no right or wrong approach to these situations, a parent or school’s sensitive monitoring of a child’s understanding and emotional state is the best way to tell whether their approach is on track or not for any particular child. 

The National Child Traumatic Stress Treatment Network offers some practical suggestions, paraphrased, and excerpted in part below, for parents if their children begin showing signs of emotional trauma. 
Helping Young Children Heal
Young children, toddlers, and preschoolers, even babies, know when bad things happen. After a traumatic event, we often see changes in their behavior. They may cry more, become clingy and not want us to leave, have temper tantrums, hit others, have problems sleeping, or become afraid of things that didn’t bother them before.  Changes like these are a sign that they need help. Here are some ways you can help them.
·         First focus on your child’s sense of safety. Your young child feels safe when you hold him or let him stay close to you.  Older children feel safe when they see their parents confident and reassuring in their ability to protect them.
·         Tell her you will take care of her when things are scary or difficult. With children who are learning to talk, use simple words, like saying ”Mommy’s here.”
·         Keep him away from frightening TV images and scary conversations.
·         Do familiar things, like singing a song you both like or telling a story.
·         Have a predictable routine, at least for bedtime: a story, a prayer, cuddle time.
·         Allow expression of feelings
·         Young children often “behave badly” when they are worried or scared. Children can “act out” as a way of asking for help. Remember, Difficult feelings = Difficult behavior.
·         Help your child name how she feels:”scared,” “happy” “angry,” “sad.”  Tell her it is OK to feel that way.
·         Talk about the things that are going well to help you and your child feel good.
·         Follow your child’s lead.  Different children need different things. Some children need to run around, some want to talk,others need to play or be held.
·         Listen to your child and watch his behavior to figure out what he needs.
·         Enable your child to tell the story of what she believes happened
·         Reconnect with supportive people, community, culture and rituals
·         Simple things like a familiar bedtime story, a song, a prayer, or family traditions remind you and your child of your way of life and offer hope.

If your child continues to be upset or distressed, you may want to consider talking with their Pediatrician or contacting a counselor or therapist.  Finding a way to help your child cope successfully with painful situations is well worth the time and attention it requires.