Your family is eating out at a restaurant when suddenly the young lady behind your table faints. Paramedics rush to the scene and the woman is wheeled out into an ambulance as your children look on in fear.
Now what do you do?
No one feels like eating so you decide to head home and your kids start asking tons of questions. What happened to the lady? Why did the ambulance come? Is she going to die?
You aren’t really prepared for such a situation and as much as you try to calm your kids down they can see that you are feeling somewhat anxious as well.
Fortunately, scenarios like this don't happen to us very often but when they do they can create stress and fear, especially for children. They might think or dream about the scenes they witnessed or get scared that they or their parents will get sick. Feeling helpless and scared can be very stressful on the child's emotional system, especially when his or her caretaker wasn’t physically or emotionally there for him at the time of the stressful experience. You cannot protect your child from seeing or hearing every scary thing.
Here are three things you can do to help your child to bounce back after a stressful situation:
1. Take care of yourself first
Like emergency measures in an airplane, you must ensure you can breathe first before helping others. So do whatever is necessary to calm down. Talk the experience through with someone you feel comfortable with, such as your spouse, family member or friend. Some people find sports, art therapy or relaxation exercises helpful to get back on track. Whatever helps you, make sure that you calmed yourself down from that experience.
2. Allow expression
Once you are calm, allow your children to express their thoughts and emotions about that particular experience. For example, you can bring it up and ask what they remember from that scenario and how they felt. If having all the kids discuss it simultaneously is too difficult then find time during the day to bring it up with each child and maybe another time bring it up as a shared experience. (This is important because a shared stressful experience has less of an impact than if it is re-experienced alone).
Just listen and validate whatever thoughts and emotions come up for the child without judging them. Just observe and reflect for the child what you hear him say. For example, you can say: “You are telling me that you were really scared when all the paramedics showed up and didn’t know whether we should stay there or leave. It was sort of confusing for you especially because it was so unexpected …”
There is no need to force your child to talk about it; just the fact that you brought it up and he knows that whenever he wants to he can talk to you about it is tremendously helpful to him.
Some children will have difficulty expressing their experience (or some of it) in words and for these children fantasy (pretend) play can be a safe way to help them process and express it. To do so you can offer to play a matching playmobile game, for example, ambulance or hospital or pretend that he is a paramedic and you the patient (without telling him necessarily why you do that).
3. Be nurturing and patient
Finally, realize that vulnerabilities are higher than usual and that you can balance out the difficult emotions and experiences with positive and safe ones. This is a time where you as a parent need to be more nurturing and patient with you child and yourself. Spent some more quality and connecting time and give yourself time to get back on track.