Healthy Living

Helping children process tragic events

Friday, July 20, 2012

The mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., has affected all Americans. But children in particular are vulnerable. They will have many questions and fears about what happened Friday. So how can we help kids deal with the tragic events they've heard about or seen on TV? A mental health expert has advice for parents on how to start the conversation with kids.

Experts remind us this tragic occurrence around a summer blockbuster movie is a traumatic event for everyone. Children can experience what's called a "secondary trauma." But parents can lessen the effect on their children.

The Ortiz family of Panorama City just can't wait to see "The Dark Night Rises," but on the drive over, 7-year-old Angel Junior heard what happened and it shook his world.

"I felt sad because you're doing something that you always do," said Angel Jr.

"You feel afraid, or how do you feel?" asked his father.

"I just feel worried," said Angel Jr.

"It is a very traumatic, catastrophic experience to anyone, even if people were not present," said Dr. Jairo Gomez, a psychiatrist at White Memorial Medical Center.

Gomez says the thought that we can be exposed to senseless violence at any moment leaves people, especially children, feeling vulnerable.

"Because you never know what's going to happen," said Angel Jr.

"Never know. But we can't live in fear, and we can't let fear dictate what we do. Right son?" said Angel's dad.

Angel's dad is taking this opportunity to teach his son the meaning of courage. Gomez says parents just need to explain what happened in language appropriate to the child's age and as honestly as possible

"I think the most important thing is to be open about the fact that they are experiencing things. Trying to cover that up is not going to help anybody," said Gomez.

And when kids can't express how they feel, keep a close eye on their behavior. Experts say you should look for other signs of trauma.

Kids may have distressing dreams that may change into generalized nightmares.

They may also "re-live" the trauma through repetitive play.

And look for physical symptoms like stomach aches or headaches.

"Are they sleeping, will they be sleeping? Are they eating, will they have a good appetite?" said Gomez. "Will they be able to function in school, learning? Will they be socializing as usual?"

Through all this, Angel knows he can count on his parents.

"I know that they're there for me and for my little brother," said Angel.

Experts say children may go through several stages while processing everything. At first, they may express fright or disbelief. Later on, anxiety or withdrawal.

But if you notice reactions lasting longer than a month, experts say a child may be at increased risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and should get counseling.

(Copyright ©2014 KABC-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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children's health, healthy living, denise dador
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