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Helping Children Cope With Stress
By Anarella Cellitti, Ph.D.

The tragic events of September 11 have affected us all, including our children. We have compiled the following information to help you recognize signs of distress in children and to offer you suggestions for helping children cope with tragedy.

Because very young children lack the ability to identify and verbalize their feelings, it is important for adults to observe them carefully for signs of stress. Some signs to look for include:

• Changes in eating and sleeping habits
• Increased separation anxiety from parents and other caregivers
• Refusal to go to school
• Nail biting
• Frequent crying spells
• Rebellious and aggressive behaviors
• Regressive behaviors such as thumb sucking and bed-wetting
• Frequent nightmares
• Persistent play themes related to the tragedy
• Less frequent interactions with other children
• In older children we may see signs of depression, hopelessness, anger, acting out, and social withdrawal.
 
Some things that teachers and parents can do to help children cope with tragedy fear, and grief include:

Maintain routines. Children feel safe and secure when their normal routines remain the same. During a tragedy or disaster try to keep sleeping, eating, pick up/drop off, and other activities at their scheduled time.

Encourage children to play. Play allows children 1) to engage in pleasurable activities; 2) to create a different reality that is more manageable; and 3) to recreate stressful events in such away that he can master.

Allow children opportunities to rest and relax. Rest hours need to be encouraged. Relaxation techniques could involve breathing exercises or guided imagery depending on the child’s age. Listening to soothing music or relaxation exercises could help children ease their body tensions.

Read books and encourage writing. Books that demonstrate how other children feel or handle situations are a great way to encourage children to express their emotions. In addition, help children keep a “feelings” journal by helping them write down their thoughts and feelings. Encourage the children to make drawings of a “happy, sad, or worried face” in their journal.

Use dance, movement, or physical exercises. Playing a fun game of “Ring Around the Rosy”, creative dancing, or simply walking can decrease children’s stress level.

Give children permission to express their feelings. Do not try to force a child to change his/her moods. Allow quiet time at school and home so the child can think and feel without pressure. If possible reduce expectations. This is the time to take things easy and not to put excessive demands on the child.

Consult a child psychologist. If a child shows excessive signs of stress for long periods of time, it is in the best interest of the child to seek professional advice.

Anarella Cellitti, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of early childhood education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.