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Lifestyle

April 26, 2013

In tragedy aftermath, watch for anxiety

Last Friday evening in a matter of minutes, Massachusetts went from weeklong despair to celebration. The experience created a teachable moment and lesson children can use throughout their lives: that even when darkness hits, light comes after. Sometimes we don’t know when the light will appear, but if we are patient, it will come.

Despite the relief we all feel now, I know many parents are asking if it is over for our children or if we should expect ongoing reactions in the days ahead? Here’s what parents need to know:

People are resilient, and most children will process and heal from this tragedy without many lingering anxieties or worries.

Still, children who were exposed to the event either directly or through media images may experience intrusive thoughts. These unwanted thoughts typically occur during times of anxiety or stress. For example, your 12-year-old son is about to play his first lacrosse game. You sense he’s anxious, but he’s not verbalizing it. Instead, he says something like, “Mom, are we sure those officers are never coming to our house?”

As a parent, you’re wondering what he’s talking about until you remember Watertown. You breathe deeply and remind him that the event is over, that everyone is safe. Then you ask him how he’s feeling about his game. As you reassure him, you’re also redirecting him back to what’s really causing the anxiety.

That might be the only time your son mentions the Boston tragedy. If so, don’t raise it with him. But it is good to note that if a pattern of such intrusive thoughts emerges over time, it indicates a more general anxiety that could be addressed professionally.

Children who also experience extreme life changes, such as their parents’ divorce, may demonstrate anxiety through the Boston tragedy. For example, the tragedy might trigger feelings of helplessness, loss, confusion or fear, similar to what children experience if their parents divorce. If they have nightmares or thoughts about the Boston event, parents should encourage them to talk about their feelings. Children with pre-existing anxiety or trauma are often at a higher risk of ongoing symptoms and could be helped professionally.

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