Posttraumatic stress disorder can be hard to spot in kids after natural or manmade disasters.
They may not understand that intrusive thoughts, panic attacks, and other symptoms are problems that can be addressed, and are unlikely to mention them.
As a result, parents, teachers, and others often underestimate children’s distress levels and overestimate their resilience. One way around the problem is to ask children how they’re doing, and probe for signs of trouble. It helps to let them know that PTSD and adjustment problems are normal after a frightening event, and to teach them how to anticipate and cope with PTSD triggers.
That’s just a small fraction of the useful advice in new guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics on the psychosocial support of children and families after disasters, published online Sept. 14 (Pediatrics. 2015 Sept. 14. doi:10.1542/peds.2015-2861).
“Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of disasters and other traumatic events because of a lack of experience, skills, and resources to be able to independently meet their developmental, socioemotional, mental, and behavioral health needs,” said the authors, led by Dr. David Schonfeld of St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, and Thomas Demaria, Ph.D ., of Long Island (N.Y.) University.
Mental health triage should come right after medical stabilization. Dissociative symptoms; extreme confusion or inability to concentrate or make even simple decisions; intense fear, anxiety, panic, helplessness, or horror; depression at the time of the event; uncontrollable and intense grief; suicidal ideation; and marked somatization are among the warning signs that kids are in trouble.
Psychiatric medications to blunt such reactions are usually the wrong call. “Children need to develop an understanding of the event and learn to express and cope with their reactions.” If medication does seem necessary, its best to let an expert in childhood trauma make the decision, the authors said.
Dismissing children’s concerns is a mistake. “In reality, if children feel worried, then they are worried. Telling them that they should not be worried is usually ineffective.” It’s also a mistake to avoid talking about grief for fear of making it worse. Children’s “distress is caused by the reaction to the death itself, rather than any question or invitation to talk. Talking may provide some relief if not coerced. Avoiding discussion is rarely helpful and often isolates children at a time when they are most in need of support and assistance,” they said.
Simple, basic facts about the event – as long as they’re not graphic or overwhelming – will help children make sense of what they’ve been through, and reassurance that things will eventually be okay can be healing. Kids also have to know that the situation isn’t their fault, and how to cope with it.
Parents can share how they’re upset about losing their home, for instance, but then discuss how talking to another trusted adult, getting exercise, meditating, and helping others makes them feel better. Pediatricians can boost spirits by saying something like “the tornado created a big mess, but we are pulling together as a community” or “living in a shelter with all the other children in the neighborhood must have been a real adventure,” the authors said.
Having children contribute to food drives or draw hopeful pictures for victims in the hospital can help them regain a sense of control and usefulness. Resuming their routines as soon as possible will also help bring back a sense of normalcy.
Bereavement counseling is in order when children are struggling with the loss of a loved one, and cognitive behavioral therapy for kids with PTSD.