How Children React to Stressful Events

Children’s Reaction to Stressful Events

Posted by Chad Brandt, Ph.D

At any age children are susceptible to psychological effects of natural disasters or other traumatic events. Local tragedies such as Hurricane Harvey and national tragedies such as the Las Vegas shootings have a psychological impact on adults, but at almost any age children are able to understand stressful events and experience similar psychological distress. The notable difference, however, is that children experience these same events but often times do not have the ability or experience to cope with these stressors. As a result, you may notice that your child is showing signs of anxiety, depression, or stress in the aftermath of such tragedies.

This stress may present in many ways in children including:

  • Excessive worries about everyday tasks not necessarily related to the stressful event (homework, getting to school on time)
  • Rumination about single worries related to the stressful event (e.g., worry about the house flooding, worry about losing all of their belongings)
  • Difficulty eating
  • Difficultly sleeping
  • Getting less enjoyment out of normally enjoyable activities.

Sometimes these symptoms come and go in a manageable timeframe. However, these symptoms can last longer and begin interfering with your child’s schoolwork or other activities. There are a number of ways that you may provide support to your child if he or she is experiencing these symptoms:

  • Support and Validate feelings, but do not ruminate! If your child comes to you with anxious thoughts hear them out – it is okay to feel anxious sometimes. However, if there is nothing to be done about a situation distraction may help take their minds away from the worries.
  • Set a “worry time” to discuss reoccurring issues. Parents cannot stop their day every time a child feels anxious. Setting a 30-minute time limit to discuss recurring anxieties after school or after dinner may help your child identify worries and put them aside for later, enabling them to focus more on school or playing knowing that they’ll get to discuss their bad feelings later.
  • Consistency! Children find comfort in consistency, structure, and predictability. Encourage them to maintain the same bed and wake times, after school activities, and playdates even after stressful events.
  • Help your child focus on ways they can help. Donating toys or clothes to other kids who may have been impacted by a natural disaster such as Harvey may help them feel as if they are doing something to help.
  • Be on the lookout for sudden changes in behavior or mood. It may be typical for some children to become upset for a brief period of time after a natural disaster or other such event. If the symptoms linger, professional help may be necessary.

If you think your child is struggling with a recent traumatic situation, you may contact the Houston OCD Program at 713-526-5055 for additional resources.