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How to Talk to Children about Traumatic Events

I was at a function on 9-11, with parents and children all under the age of 13. In respect to the day, a 9-11 tribute was planned. One parent walked away, visibly upset. Understandably. We have lived through this day, and the following weeks: in real time, in our minds, in our waking and dreaming hours. But our children haven’t. They have only known a world where we don’t wear shoes on the security line in the airport, and metal detectors are common place. How do explain 9-11 to our children? At what age do we start? It’s important to be able to talk about scary events to our kids. Bad things happen. And we need to be able to speak to our children about them, in an understandable and relatable manner. If we can start speaking to our children when they are young, it will be easier for us (as parents) to talk to about, and for them (as growing minds) to process.
  1. Don’t shy away from the truth, but give it to a child in a developmentally appropriate way: Young children don’t need to know that planes struck two iconic buildings in Lower Manhattan. But they do need to know that something bad happened.
  2. Stick to the facts: It’s so easy to add commentary. Don’t. This is true in any tough situation. It muddies the waters and doesn’t help young children process what occurred. You can simply say, "Some people wanted to hurt America." If the child is older and prepared to hear more facts, give them slowly. Remember that what you say will inform how they react and think in the future.
  3. Try to give hope: Even when things are hopeless. Children look towards the adult in their life to guide them. Even when we don’t have answers ourselves. It’s important to remember what we are doing to keep people safe, and how those actions, in turn, are keeping our children safe. We might find the lines in the airport long and cumbersome, but they help ensure that everyone flying that day is safe and secure. Present the positive to the child.

Sometimes, in the moment, we don’t know what to say. If that’s the case, it’s ok to say “I don’t know. Let me get back to you.” Seek out a pediatric psychologist or other qualified mental health professional to sort through the information and help you come up with plan of what to say. When you have a plan, you’ll be calmer and be able to talk to your child in a clear manner.

Talking to kids about scary times is tough. But it’s important we build that foundation for children. Because our children deserve to know how to process both positive and negative events in their lives. And it’s our job as parents to guide them.

Major Depressive Disorder in Young Children

What happens when being sad doesn’t go away? Or, what does it mean when a young child is jumpy, unfocused, sad, and angry, more often than not? When young children are diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) often medication and/or therapy are prescribed. Many times, despite our best efforts, children with MDD often relapse. A new study looked at children prescribed fluoxetine (Prozac) as well as relapse prevention cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Interestingly, regardless of whether children received relapse prevention treatment, 80% of them experienced remission; that means that 80% of children in the study got better! But there was a group of children who relapsed. Children in the fluoxetine and CBT relapse prevention group stayed mentally healthy more than three months longer than those just receiving medication. Booster CBT relapse prevention therapy, along with appropriate medication management, has been shown to be effective in helping children diagnosed with MDD. Reviewing mastered skills, before they are needed, can help prevent further relapse, and quicker recovery, so that kids can get back to being kids. Emslie, G.J., Kennard, B.D., Mayes, T.L., Nakonezny, P.A., Moore, J., Jones, J.M., … King, J. (2015). Continued effectiveness of relapse prevention cognitive-behavioral therapy following fluoxetine treatment in youth with major depressive disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 54, 991-998. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2015.09.014

Social Anxiety in Young Children

Sometimes, walking into kindergarten can be super scary; new children, new teacher, no mommy. It may take a few days or weeks for some children to warm up and be comfortable. Those who don’t warm up, who continue to cry and have difficulty adjusting to novel social situations may be suffering from Social Anxiety. Social Anxiety doesn’t end in kindergarten, but may continue throughout a person’s lifespan. In young children, parents and caregivers are more likely to schedule social interactions, which help young children become less socially anxious. A recent study by Hoff et al (2015) found that older children who suffered from social anxiety had greater difficulty in social, academic, and overall functioning as they aged, even when home and family problems decreased. Interestingly, these social and academic problems were greater among children who suffered from social anxiety than those who suffered from other types of anxiety. It’s possible that socially anxious adolescents are more able to avoid social situations, whereas younger children’s social calendar is controlled by their parents. Whatever the cause, early intervention for social anxiety might prevent socially anxious younger children from becoming socially anxious adolescents and adults. Hoff, A.L., Kendall, P.C., Langley, A., Ginsburg, G., Keeton, C., Compton, S., … Piacentini, J. (2015) Developmental differences in functioning in youth with social phobia. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15374416.2015.1079779

Early Signs of Autism

Children are increasingly being diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at higher  rates than previous years.  It can look different at different stages of life.  But what does it  look like preschoolers? Here are some behaviors to look out for.  Remember, if you are concerned, please  seek out an early childhood specialist, such as a psychologist, to get a clear diagnosis. Signs in Language Development
  • Young children are learning to talk. So they remember words, and then forget words. They make up words. This is typical. Some children who are suspected of having ASD have words, and then lose them.  But, they don’t regain those words. They may use language in their own way, such as calling a “cookie” a “coocoo.”  These children are resistant to changing their language.
  • Young children tend to repeat words just for the sake of repeating them. This, too, can be a normal part of language development. Children repeat words, as a way to grasp what the sounds are or how their mouth moves.  But children showing signs of having ASD have no obvious intention for repeating words.  For instance, they might hear someone say a phrase like “Do you want a cookie?” and repeat it over and over again.  They aren’t looking for a cookie; they are just repeating the phrases.
Social Cues Children with ASD often have poor eye contact.  Also, they often don’t respond when their name is called.  Their lack of response is not with a smirk or meant to give silent treatment.  There is simply just no response.  Many of these children also seem very independent. They don’t need your help because they do everything themselves. And when they can’t, they don’t ask for help; they may take your hand and use your finger to point or reach for what they want. At Play Play in early childhood develops at different rates. Some children like to play by themselves. As they get older they may choose to play near other kids, doing different or similar things. Only later do they play together, in a group, towards a common real or imagined goal.
  • Children with ASD tend to play by themselves, their own games, even when most of their other same-aged peers have moved on to a more parallel or cooperative play.
  • They may be interested in parts of a toy, playing with it in ways that are unintended, such as spinning the wheels of a truck over and over again. They may lay on their head, looking at the truck out of the side of their eye.
  • Their toys may have to be laid out in a certain manner, according to their own organizational rules. They may play with their hands or body in ways that other children don’t, such as flapping, rocking, moving their fingers near their eyes.
As with all other diagnoses, if you have concerns, seek out a trained medical professional.  A psychologist, who specializes in early childhood, can help determine what the concerns are, and how best to treat your child. Autism Spectrum Disorder is not the end of childhood, but these children have a much better prognosis if they receive treatment earlier rather than later.
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