For good mental health, it’s important to anticipate reactions to the anniversary of a traumatic event. For children, the timing can be about a specific date something happened (for example, May 22, 2011), a key event that happens on an annual basis (a birth date or specific holiday) or seasonal (visual cues in nature or decorations people may use during the time frame). The anniversary of events such as these serve as a strong reminder — it may renew early feelings and spark worries that a similar event may happen in the near future.
Understand that each child attaches his or her own meaning to the original event. Therefore, one child may be more reactive to information or reminders about the event than another. Around the anniversary of a traumatic event, your child may become irritable, anxious, withdrawn or even aggressive.
- Young children tend to express fears at home, such as fears of sleeping alone or worries about the safety of their loved ones.
- School-aged children may acquire new fears because they are imagining worse-case scenarios; everyday situations may now be perceived as risky.
- Adolescents may respond to an anniversary with more reckless behavior and by acting out.
Adults can respond to anniversaries by validating the child’s vulnerability and apprehension. Try saying, “I can see why you feel that way”. Then, let children acknowledge the anniversary in their own way. Some children may express a lot of interest, while others may choose to ignore the anniversary altogether. Don’t force children to either acknowledge or ignore the anniversary.
Be prepared that internally, the children are wondering, “Could the event happen again”? While the answer may be “Yes” you can help by emphasizing the importance of having a plan and being in control of the situation — this helps build resilience and coping skills. For example, be clear about what the routine will be during an emergency. Show your child where and how to use emergency kits. Practice for an emergency during a calm time and reinforce the message that it’s important to be prepared, whether or not an emergency occurs.
Adults can prepare themselves by detecting distress signals from the child. Protect your children from unnecessary exposure to troubling reminders, such as news stories. When your child expresses a concern or worry, respond in a calming and reassuring manner. It may be helpful to talk about current sadness as well as what has gone well since the event.
If the event is disrupting eating, sleeping or physical/emotional well-being, please seek help from a mental health professional.