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Helping Children Cope with Trauma: Navigating Christmas Eve After a Condominium Fire at Atsugi Navy

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

Helping Children Cope with Trauma: Navigating Christmas Eve After a Condominium Fire at Atsugi Navy
Children in Pain

Christmas Eve, Atsugi Navy Base, Japan. Quite a few years ago there was a condominium fire where several children in the complex were displaced. Afterwards, I was in a de-briefing session with several tiny kids; it was painful for them. As a Counselor, it was more painful for the me. Their questions were emotionally upsetting, such as: “Will Sant Clause return?” “What happened to my cat?” “Will we still have a turkey dinner?” “Will I still have Christmas presents?” “Where will we sleep?” In a child’s mind these are serious question pertaining to their reality and emotional well-being. Children often have ups and downs that affect the way they feel and behave. But sometimes children don’t ‘bounce back’ from the downs, and this starts to affect other parts of their lives. This can be a sign that children are having mental health problems.

The children were afraid. I asked them what their reaction to the fire was. “The smell of smoke was terrifying. Running for safety. Seeing the big flames. Running into the darkness. And it being cold outside,” were the reactions. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, childhood trauma is defined as: “The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.” Some of the psychological effects of childhood trauma is that kids may keep their feelings bottle up and afraid to express themselves. If children internalize stress reactions, they may experience depression, anxiety, or anger. My experience as a trauma specialist found that some people after exposure to a traumatic event, have short-term emotional distress, this is common.

Children, like adults, differ in their reactions to traumatic events. The reactions of children may be influenced by their maturity level, ethnicity, cultural factors, personality traits, previous trauma exposure. Many children and adolescents express some kind of distress or behavioral change in the acute phase of recovery from a traumatic event. Not all short-term responses to trauma are problematic. Developing resilience skills take practice and time.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry states pain is a personal experience that involves not just a physical sensation but impacts on emotional and mental wellbeing. Pain is often described as either acute or chronic. Acute pain is pain that occurs within the normal period of healing, for example after an injury like a broken bone or sprained muscle, illness, infection, or surgery. Chronic Pain is (or persistent) when it continues beyond the usual period of healing. This is often defined as pain that lasts for three months or longer.

Helping Children Cope with Trauma: Navigating Christmas Eve After a Condominium Fire at Atsugi Navy

According to the Parenting Research Center, if your child has repeated tantrums or consistently behaves in a defiant or aggressive way, seems sad or unhappy, cries a lot, consistently is afraid or worried, or avoids social situations, has trouble paying attention, or can’t sit still or is restless, it’s time for an intervention. If you notice a sudden change in your child’s mood or behavior, encourage your child to talk with you about their feelings. Then of course, individual counseling.

If you’re not sure how to talk with your child about mental health issues, try telling your child that you’ve noticed they seem sad, and you want to help. Say to your child “Your reactions are a normal response to an abnormal event.” Ask your child to talk about their feelings and don’t judge or over-react to what they tell you. Tell your child that it’s common for children to feel worried, stressed, or sad sometimes. Tell your child that opening up about personal thoughts and feelings can be scary.

Med Line Plus states indicators to watch out for when children are under stress are decreased appetite, changes in eating habits, headache, nightmares, new or recurrent bedwetting and upset stomach. Emotional or behavioral symptoms may include Anxiety, worry. Not able to relax. New or recurring fears (fear of the dark, fear of being alone, fear of strangers). Clinging, unwilling to let you out of sight. Anger, crying, whining. Not able to control emotions. Aggressive or stubborn behavior. Doesn't want to participate in family or school activities.

According to the Australian Psychological Association, parents can help children respond to stress in healthy ways. For example: Provide a safe, secure, and dependable home. Having a family dinner or movie night can help relieve or prevent stress. Do your best to keep your own stress under control and manage it in healthy ways. Be careful about which television programs, books, and games that young children watch, read, and play. News broadcasts and violent shows or games can produce fears and anxiety. Allow the child opportunities to make choices and have some control in their life. The more your child feels they have control over a situation, the better their response to stress will be. Encourage physical activity.

About the Author:

Hilary Valdez is a freelance Writer living in Tokyo, Japan. He is an experienced Mental Health professional and Resiliency Trainer. Valdez is a former Marine and has worked with the military most of his career and most recently worked at Camp Zama as a Master Resiliency Trainer. Valdez now has a private practice and publishes books on social and psychological issues. His books are available on Amazon and for Kindle.

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