As the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol arrives, some experts say children exposed to those events may react with what doctors call secondary trauma.
“If a child has experienced any type of trauma, or remembers the events of Jan. 6, either by witnessing them on TV or hearing about them consistently, there can be a reaction — or a secondary trauma that takes place,” said Dr. Asha Patton-Smith, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente in Northern Virginia.
“As a parent, it’s important to be aware of that and to look for signs and symptoms of concern,” she said.
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Trauma is a complicated condition to diagnose, but common symptoms can include anger, fear, guilt, anxiety, depression, issues with concentration and withdrawal from other people. Physical signs of trauma include muscle tension, headaches, chest pain and fatigue, not being able to sleep and nightmares.
“I think that, as we get closer to the event, there’ll be more talk about the event. And parents do need to check in with their kids to make sure they’re not being re-traumatized … or if these emotional events are triggering previous traumas in their life,” she said.
Last year after the insurrection, Patton-Smith said she observed frustration, anger, even confusion in some of her adolescent patients.
Something she says came up a lot with younger kids was fear: “Will this happen again? Will it be OK? Am I OK? Someone comes into my house, what’s going to happen?”
Patton-Smith said parents need to understand that a sense of safety is what is most important for children, because trauma robs that feeling of safety and makes people feel isolated.
Because children are like sponges, actively absorbing and trying to process what they see, Patton-Smith said parents may need to limit news and social media that could increase exposure to potentially disturbing content.
She also says it’s vital to talk to children about the things they are seeing.
“It really is important for a parent, if they’re talking about the events that happened on Jan. 6 — or any type of event — they talk about it very openly and in a non-biased, nonjudgmental way.”
She recommends parents instead ask younger children about their emotions and feelings.
“Not a judgment, not sharing as a parent what you feel, but just being very open and listening,” Patton-Smith said.
She says it’s also important to listen to older kids in a non-judgmental way, “so you can get a sense of where they are, which may be different from how you were looking at an event.”
Parents who have concerns about what their children may be experiencing shouldn’t hesitate to reach out for help.
“As always, talk to your child’s school counselor, any mental health professional at the school, obviously your child’s pediatrician or primary care provider and, if needed, a mental health professional,” Patton-Smith said.
For more advice on ways to deal with trauma and other mental health issues for kids, Patton-Smith recommends HealthyChildren.org, a parenting website sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics.