"Daddy� Are we going to have World War III?"

Understanding and Dealing With Secondary Trauma in Children

May 21, 2014
By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D, Clinical, Medical & Family Psychologist
Published in the Family News, 2001

Comprehensive Resources: www.CrisisCounseling.Org

It was Friday, September 14th. Caitlyn had just come home from school. I was watching the News after working all day. Caitlyn came bouncing into the house and said, "Daddy� Are we going to have World War III?" I told her no. I asked her if she thought going to war was a good or bad thing. She said she wanted a War because she had never seen a war. When I explained what War meant she said, "I don�t want a War." Caitlyn is seven years old.

Of course I couldn�t leave the conversation alone, so I asked, "Who told you we were going to war?" She told me that friends at school said "We are going to war" and another friend told her it was "the end of the world." And for just a moment, even I was frightened. I could see that she was looking at me to see how I felt. She wanted to know how I felt because she didn�t know what to feel. She didn�t understand what people were saying. So I decided to tell her it was not the end of the world and that the United States army is going to find the people who did this and punish them. She seemed O.K. with that and then told me she wanted to go outside and play with her friend.

It is enough to be a decent American and for children to show pride in who we are as a country. Children should not feel bad because they can�t give blood.

Primary Trauma

People who were involved or witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Center, Pentagon and the loss of life experienced what is know as "primary trauma." This usually includes police, fire and rescue service professionals but also the individuals in or near the area of a violent and traumatic event. The impact on these people can be tremendous. They experience changes in their thinking, emotions, memory, concentration, energy and ability to participate in activities. Many become accident-prone, stop eating, can�t sleep, become moody and feel unable to return to work.

Secondary Trauma

The rest of us experienced what is called "secondary trauma." There can be traumatic effects from watching television, reading newspapers and magazines, listening to others and talking about it. Comforting and empathizing with each other and victims can have an emotional impact. There can be mild to severe consequences when secondary trauma is powerful, repeated or long in duration. I was recently contacted by a company in San Francisco that wanted help because their employees were afraid to work on the top floors. That is a clear example of secondary trauma. 

We are only beginning to appreciate and understand the impact this is having. There are reasons to be concerned. Children exposed to the media have commented,

"Why do the people keep jumping out of the buildings." A comment made by a child who watched replays of people jumping."

"Can't they put the fire out." A comment made following replays of the World Trade Center on fire."

"My friend's parents said it was the end of the world." A comment made to a child at school by another child.

How Much Can Children Handle?

Most children are resilient and can handle brief periods of severe stress. They can become confused by the behavior and actions of parents. Very few children can endure exposure to violence and traumatic events without the possibility of lasting consequences. There is no way to predict with certainty how your child will react to these traumatic times. As a group, most children will do well. But that will depend on the individual child, their parents and the impact of their friends and teachers.

Some Children Are More Vulnerable

A report by the Surgeon General found that one out of 10 children have serious emotional and psychological problems. Only one out of three of these children receive appropriate care and treatment. Studies published by the National Institute of Mental Health suggest that as many as one out of five children have mild to moderate emotional and psychological problems that may result in further problems if they exposed to prolonged or severe stress.

I have a fair amount of experience working with traumatic events that have affected communities. I have dealt with the impact of airline disasters on families, employees and the airline. The impact of anything of this magnitude will be far reaching. What happened on September 11th makes everything else minor in comparison. My experience and knowledge of the research on traumatic events tells me that many parents and children throughout the country will become more depressed and anxious over the next year. We should be concerned for those children who are already at risk and especially children who escape and avoid how they feel by isolating, skipping school, experimenting with alcohol and drugs, engaging in thrill seeking behavior, or taking their anger and frustration out on others.

Simple Suggestions

Listen and Don�t Lecture or Become Impatient. Ask questions and listen to what your children tell you. Be interested in what they see, hear, think, feel, are doing and want to happen. Do not offer your opinion quickly or forcefully if you disagree. It is more important for children to talk it out and feel better and then come to you again in the future. Offer your opinion a few hours later. Encourage children to think about what you tell them by setting an example that you are taking the time to consider what they told you. Avoid arguing and fighting over issues that are merely a matter of opinion. Focus on giving facts that children can handle.

Keep Communication Going. Be interested in what children are telling each other. Don�t be judgmental of what other kids tell your child. Don�t call other kids "stupid" or say things like "that�s ridiculous". Provide accurate information and tell your child what you think is true. This is not a time for kids to run around telling other children that they are stupid.

Recognize How You Feel and Act. Whether you know it or not, you must deal with your own secondary trauma. Helping others can make us feel better, but it can become a way to avoid how you feel and you may miss the impact you are having on your family. The greatest challenge is to recognize the emotional impact that this traumatic event is having on you. When necessary, tell your children that you are upset, distressed or irritable because of what you saw on television or read in a magazine. Make sure children understand that you are upset with what you saw, heard or read and not them. Don�t take your frustration, impatience or irritability out on your children or on others in front of your children.

Focus More on What You Are Doing or Going to Do and Not Why This Happened. It will be a long time before we have all the answers. You and your children will become more depressed and anxious if you spend a lot of time trying to figure out who did what, when, where and why. Part of being human means that we want to understand and we are naturally curious. We need to know something about what happened - but not everything. What is true today may be incorrect tomorrow. Doing something positive or doing something about the challenges we now face is more important than understanding every detail and looking at every picture, video and news special on television. It is enough to be a decent American and for children to show pride in who we are as a country. Children should not feel guilty if they can�t give blood, toys or money to help others.

Find Balance in Your Life. More than anything, people need to restore balance to their lives. This is no time to become obsessed with what happened � especially if your responsibilities to your children, work, relationships and marriage suffer. Repeated and prolonged exposure to violent and traumatic images as well as written content can become depressing, create anxiety or produce a callous insensitivity.

Dr. Conner is a clinical, medical and family psychologist who completed a research and training fellowship in graduate medical education and health education. He provides training, evaluation and intervention services for adults, families and youth. He is Board Certified in Traumatic Stress, Emergency Crisis Intervention and Emergency School Response.. This article is also available at www.CrisisCounseling.Com. Dr. Conner�s practice is located in Bend Oregon and he can be reached at 541 388-5660 or or www.Education-Options.Com

Copyright 2001, Michael G. Conner