When scary things happen...
A lot of us have heard about the passing of Derek J. Sam and our thoughts are with those who are affected by everything that has happened… It’s tragic, in so many ways. There are so many questions, with so few answers. What happened? Why did it happen? What was going on for him while this was happening? What was he thinking? What was anyone thinking? How are the officers and witnesses and families and friends of those involved doing? Etc… The investigation is under way though, and some of these questions will be answered, while others will not.
While we know that people are doing their best to understand everything, at times it can seem like little solace and comfort, because of the fact that there is so much that we don’t know – that we might not ever know. A lot of us don’t know how to feel. We don’t know what we are feeling. A lot of us might feel nervous, or sad, or frustrated, or confused, or [insert emotion here]. So many of us are still wondering… Are we safe? Should I stay away from that area? What about my kids? How are people handling this?
When things like this happen, we may realize that more people are affected than we originally thought would be. So many people are talking about this, whether in the media or in our homes, workplaces, schools, churches, etc. Even here. When we are surrounded by conversations and frequently exposed to traumatic events via news, friends, etc., any of us, whether we’re 3, 33, 63, or 93, may start to notice that we or someone we know are experiencing increased anxiety, stress, sadness, etc. So what are we saying? How do our conversations help ourselves? How do they help others? Sometimes, when tragic things like this happen, we may feel like we’re in shock or that we’re stuck. We may feel at a loss for what to do, or where to go from here. So what can we do?
First, let’s talk about some of the ways in which people may experience, react to, and cope with traumatic and tragic events.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a government organization, people may react or cope differently depending upon their age. As we grow, the ways in which we understand what happens around us changes. Many of the reactions we discuss here are normal when handling the stress right after an event. If any of these behaviors last for more than 2 to 4 weeks, or if they all of a sudden appear later on, it would be worth talking with a professional, so don’t hesitate to reach out should you have any questions or concerns.
Children: 0 – 5 years old
Very young children may go back to thumb sucking or wetting the bed at night after a trauma. They may fear strangers, darkness, or monsters. It is fairly common for preschool children to become clingy with a parent, caregiver, or teacher or to want to stay in a place where they feel safe. They may express the trauma repeatedly in their play or tell exaggerated stories about what happened. Some children’s eating and sleeping habits may change. They also may have aches and pains that cannot be explained. Other symptoms to watch for are aggressive or withdrawn behavior, hyperactivity, speech difficulties, and disobedience.
- Infants and Toddlers, 0–2 years old, cannot understand that a trauma is happening, but they know when their caregiver is upset. They may start to show the same emotions as their caregivers, or they may act differently, like crying for no reason or withdrawing from people and not playing with their toys.
- Children, 3–5 years old, can understand the effects of trauma. They may have trouble adjusting to change and loss. They may depend on the adults around them to help them feel better.
Children & Adolescents/Teens: 6 – 19 years old.
Children and youth in these age ranges may have some of the same reactions to trauma as younger children. Often younger children want much more attention from parents or caregivers. They may stop doing their school work or chores at home. Some youth may feel helpless and guilty because they cannot take on adult roles as their family or the community responds to a trauma or disaster.
- Children, 6–10 years old, may fear going to school and stop spending time with friends. They may have trouble paying attention and do poorly in school overall. Some may become aggressive for no clear reason. Or they may act younger than their age by asking to be fed or dressed by their parent or caregiver.
- Youth and Adolescents, 11–19 years old, go through a lot of physical and emotional changes because of their developmental stage. So, it may be even harder for them to cope with trauma. Older teens may deny their reactions to themselves and their caregivers. They may respond with a routine “I’m ok” or even silence when they are upset. Or, they may complain about physical aches or pains because they cannot identify what is really bothering them emotionally. Some may start arguments at home and/or at school, resisting any structure or authority. They also may engage in risky behaviors such as using alcohol or drugs.
Adults: 20+ years old
Adults may have similar reactions to those experienced by people younger than themselves. Some people may want more attention from their loved ones. Others may decrease or stop working, whether at work or at home. Some may feel increased helplessness and guilt because they may not be able to stop, fix, or help to the extent that they feel they should or wish they could. Some people may compare themselves to or judge themselves against others and how others are coping or handling the event.
- Adults, 20+ years of age, may notice any of the following changes in response to an event. Having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Feeling like you have no energy or like you are always exhausted. Feeling sad or depressed. Having stomachaches or headaches. Feeling like you have too much energy or like you are hyperactive. Feeling very irritable or angry— fighting with friends or family for no reason. Being numb—not feeling at all. Having trouble focusing on work. Having periods of confusion. Drinking alcohol or using illicit drugs or even legal medications to stop your feelings. Not having any appetite at all, or just the opposite—finding that you are eating too much. Thinking that no one else is having any of the same reactions and that you are alone in dealing with your feelings.
As you can see, the ways in which we all may respond to a traumatic event varies greatly from person to person.
So what's next? How do we talk with people about traumatic events, bad stuff, scary things, catastrophes, and other painful things?
Children: 0–5 years old
Give these very young children a lot of cuddling and verbal support. Take a deep breath before holding or picking them up and focus on them, not the trauma. Get down to their eye level and speak in a calm, gentle voice using words they can understand. Tell them that you still care for them and will continue to take care of them so they feel safe.
Children & Adolescents/Teens: 6 – 19 years old
Nurture children and youth in this age group. Ask your child or the children in your care what worries them and what might help them cope. Offer comfort with gentle words, a hug when appropriate, or just being present with them. Spend more time with the children than usual, even for a short while. Returning to school activities and getting back to routines at home is important too. Excuse traumatized children from chores for a day or two. After that, make sure they have age-appropriate tasks and can participate in a way that makes them feel useful. Support children spending time with friends or having quiet time to write or create art. Encourage children to participate in recreational activities so they can move around and play with others. Address your own trauma in a healthy way. Avoid hitting, isolating, abandoning, or making fun of children. Let children know that you care about them. Spend time doing something special; make sure to check on them in a nonintrusive way.
Adults: 20+ years old
So many of the ways in which we talk with children and adolescents/teens are appropriate for how we talk with adults as well. The key is to let someone know that you are there with and for them, however they need. Ask someone what worries them or what might help them cope. Ask them if they are thirsty or hungry. Sometimes when we experience something traumatic we forget to eat or just aren’t hungry. Sit with them – or stand if that’s more appropriate. Spend more time with someone than you would usually do, even for a short while. While getting back to routines is important, let someone be excused from things, if possible, for a day or two. Support someone in spending time with family and friends or having quiet time to write or create art. Invite someone to participate in recreational activities so they can move around and interact with others. Address your own trauma in a healthy way. Avoid hitting, isolating, abandoning, or making light of or teasing someone. Let them know that you care about them. Spend time doing something special; make sure to check on them in a nonintrusive way.
A NOTE OF CAUTION! Be careful not to pressure anyone to talk about a trauma or join in expressive activities. While some people will easily talk about what happened, some may become frightened or uncomfortable. Some may even get traumatized again by talking about it, listening to others talk about it, or looking at drawings, pictures, or videos of the event. Allow people to remove themselves from these activities, and monitor them for signs of distress.
Now we can see some of the ways we all experience, cope with, and talk about traumatic events.
So what are some of the things that we can do to help people handle or cope with these events?
The good news is that people can be quite resilient and may start feeling OK soon after an event. With the right support from those around them, people can thrive and recover. The most important ways to help are to make sure people feel connected, cared about, and loved. Parents, teachers, other caregivers, friends, and loved ones can help people express their emotions through conversation, writing, drawing, and singing. If someone wants to talk about it, let them. Accept their feelings and tell them it is ok to feel sad, upset, or stressed. Crying is often a way to relieve stress and grief. Pay attention and be a good listener.
Ask your teen and youth you are caring for what they know about the event. What are they hearing in school or seeing on TV? Try to watch news coverage on TV or the Internet with them. And, limit access so they have time away from reminders about the trauma. Don’t let talking about the trauma take over the family or classroom discussion for long periods of time. Allow them to ask questions. Adults can help children and youth see the good that can come out of a trauma. Heroic actions, families and friends who help, and support from people in the community are examples.
Some people may better cope with a trauma or disaster by helping others. They can write caring letters to those who have been hurt or have lost their homes; they can send thank you notes to people who helped. They may be able to volunteer to help with the community. Encourage these kinds of activities. If human violence or error caused an event, be careful not to blame a cultural, racial, or ethnic group, or persons with psychiatric disabilities. This may be a good opportunity to talk with others about discrimination and diversity.
Remind people and let children know that they are not to blame when bad things happen. It’s ok for children and youth to see adults sad or crying, but try not to show intense emotions. Screaming and hitting or kicking furniture or walls can be scary for children as well as teens and adults. Violence can further frighten others or lead to more trauma. Adults can show others, including children and youth, how to take care of themselves. If you are in good physical and emotional health, you are more likely to be readily available to support those you care about. Model self-care, set routines, eat healthy meals, get enough sleep, exercise, and take deep breaths to handle stress.
Remember, none of us are alone. There are times when we may feel alone. We may feel like we’re lost, stuck, overwhelmed, afraid, or have nowhere or no one to turn to when things are hard. We may feel like we don’t know what to say so what’s the point it talking with someone about it. It’s OK not to know what to say. It’s OK not to know what to do. It’s by reaching out, letting someone know how you’re feeling or what you’re thinking, that you’re giving yourself a chance for some change. A chance for some support. A chance for some understanding. It’s by doing these things that in time, we start to feel and realize again that we are not alone.
If you or anyone you know has any questions or concerns, reach out. We’re here. You can reach us directly via phone, 554-2600, or email, firstname.lastname@example.org.