One week after the Boston Marathon bombings, the healing is only just beginning for many families dealing with the less tangible injuries of psychological trauma. Metro asked Dr. Kate Roberts, a Massachusetts-based child psychologist and parenting coach at Kate Roberts & Associates, how parents should handle psychological injuries following such terrifying ordeals.
“Children directly affected will have symptoms of acute trauma reaction. Things like not being able to stop thinking about the event; their mind jumps back on images even if they’re playing or busy doing something. They experience troubling intrusive thoughts. Noises and the unexpected can be especially startling,” Roberts says. “Then, there are nightmares, which are the subconscious images from the day.”
Parents might share similar symptoms, which can also include sadness and/or mood changes. But for children traumatic events are a very new experience: “There’s a depersonalization,” says Dr. Roberts. “Their world is shaken and they don’t have enough life experience to put it into context.”
Even children not directly involved with a tragedy can be traumatized. The endless media loop covering these events can be harrowing, particularly to young minds, and the Boston Marathon bombing came soon after the horror of the Sandy Hook elementary school attack. To support a child’s healing process, Dr. Roberts advises parents to start a dialogue and be patient.
“Ask them how they feel, but don’t push it if they are reluctant to talk,” she says. “If your child is exhibiting signs of fear, perhaps they’re reluctant to go to the playground or to the mall, don’t force them. Reintroduce children to normal activities incrementally and only fully engage when they are ready. If a place is out of their comfort zone, avoid it. Let it lie.”
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Roberts advises that parents are often eager to see improvement in their child’s behavior and emphasize positive signals, while ignoring negative ones.
“Don’t rush them, in due time more normal activity will ensue,” says Dr. Roberts, “but initially there’s not a lot of space where they feel comfortable, because they are not comfortable in their own mind.”
Dr. Roberts says parents should avoid being in denial: “Don’t err on the side of caution. Engage the child in counseling and the earlier, the better. Children need to learn adaptive coping, not maladaptive coping. Family counseling is important so that parents can be there and understand the healthy coping mechanism the child adopts and then reinforce it.”