Since the terrible nightmare began and continues in Japan, parents are noticing a difference in child's emotions and behaviors.
Since the terrible nightmare began and continues in Japan, parents are noticing a difference in child's emotions and behaviors. Attention as been called by the government and community leaders to speak more to their children and ask questions about their emotions, which is something very new in the Japanese culture. A clinical pyschologist who has been around the children after experiencing trauma believes that children need to "play" as much as possible. This is a key factor in helping children recover after a traumatic event such as the tsunami and earthquakes. The Japanese culture is a strict culture where community plays a part and it is important to not show emotioon, even though being part of a united community is normal.
The kids will be all right: Attention, routine help Japan's children cope
TOKYO, Japan - As their Tokyo kindergarten rocked back and forth, two little girls, 4 and 5, stood up and started to dance and sing. It was only after the magnitude-9 temblor subsided that they began to cry. From the next morning, the 4-year-old's demeanor was overly cheerful. She started to prefer spending her time outside. Inside, she began to literally cling to her parents, needing to touch them constantly, even when it meant sacrificing her favorite activities.
Many parents throughout the Tohoku and Kanto regions are witnessing unusual behavior in their own children since March 11; they surely recognize it as a reaction to extreme stress, but may not know what to do to help their kids get through this terrifying experience.
"Children are very sensitive and struggle to make sense of a frightening experience such as the earthquake, tsunami and after-effects," says Linda Semlitz, clinical director at Tokyo English Life Line.
"Mental trauma is characterized by strong feelings, such as frightening thoughts and painful feelings. It can also produce extreme behavior. All of these reactions are normal reactions to a very abnormal series of events and are generally time-limited," she says, adding that reactions can sometimes appear long after the event.
Depending on their age and how severely they were affected by the earthquake and tsunami, children could experience anything from regression to outbursts to thoughts of suicide.
As the greatest influence in a child's life, parents should first look at their own behavior. They should try to stay calm and learn some coping skills.
"Parents...are the external regulators of their children's emotional lives," says Scott Smith, a Tokyo-based psychotherapist specializing in working with children struggling with depression and anxiety. "If you feel calm and safe, your kids are much more likely to feel that way, too. Conversely, if you're anxious and on edge, your kids will pick up on it right away, no matter what you say to them."
Helping children through this confusing and difficult time involves open and honest communication, the acceptance of sometimes extreme behavior and a return to normal routines, such as eating together or bedtime stories. Parents should allow - but not pressure - their children to express their emotions and thoughts. They should explain what happened and make sure their kids understand it was not their fault, and they should reaffirm their love, but should not make promises they cannot keep.
"Adult helpers should listen to children, accept their feelings and help them cope with the reality of their experiences. You can explain that there was a big earthquake and tsunami and many people were hurt. Spend time listening; allow children to ask questions and express their concerns. Answer questions briefly and honestly; explanations should be age-appropriate and not too detailed. It is OK to admit if you don't have the answers to all their questions," Semlitz says.
There is one need that often goes overlooked, according to Akiko Ohnogi, a clinical psychologist who assisted in recovery efforts in Sri Lanka following the 2004 quake and tsunami, and in Niigata following the Niigata Prefecture Chuetsu Earthquake earlier that year.
"Children should be provided with a lot of opportunity to play," she says. "Play is crucial to the healthy recovery of a child who has experienced trauma, as both the trauma experience and post-disaster play experience directly affect their brain structure. This holds for children of all ages, including infants and teenagers."
Ohnogi, who also cofounded the Japan Association of Play Therapy (www.ja4pt.org), says adults should monitor play as much as possible, but should not interfere "to make things better" when the child is acting out the earthquake in his or her play story.
With a disaster of this nature, children feel helpless. The therapists interviewed for this article each recommend finding ways to increase "helping" activities - at home and in the community - for affected children.
"Including your kids in basic planning - What should we have for dinner? What movie should we watch? - can help them feel more stable and in control," says Smith. "If your child wants to help disaster victims somehow, that can also restore feelings of safety and control."
\Parents should not forget they, too, are under significant levels of stress as they also worry about aftershocks, water contamination, food shortages and other concerns.
"Be calm. Be hopeful. Be friendly, even if people are difficult. Connect to others and listen to their stories, but only if they want to share," Semlitz says. "Learn simple breathing and muscle-relaxing exercises and in turn, teach your children."
Smith wants parents to take good care of themselves, so they can take better care of their kids: "This disaster has really drained everyone's energy, so it makes sense for parents especially to take steps to recharge their own batteries by eating well and by getting enough sleep, enough exercise and enough fun themselves. Deliberately taking good care of yourself is the first thing you need to do in order to take good care of your kids.