How Children Are Struggling Through Ferguson Unrest

Some kids have had nightmares and other signs of anxiety.

August 19, 2014, 2:53 PM

— -- As the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, continue, some children in the community have shown signs of anxiety and stress such as nightmares as inflamed tensions between local authorities and residents continue for a ninth day.

Angela Tate, a counselor and director of the region’s Behavioral Health Response, said her 14-year-old daughter keeps asking over and over what exactly is going on.

“Her questions [are], ‘How long is this going on.’ She wants to go back to school,” Tate said. “Her questions haven’t been the deeper-thought level questions. It’s been more on the surface is what happens first and what happens next.”

Tate’s daughter is just one of 11,000 students in the Ferguson-Florissant school district who remain unable to go to school because of the protests. The district has postponed school twice since the protests began, meaning thousands of children have been left without their normal day-to-day routine.

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The delayed school date is more than a minor annoyance because it can create more stress for young students already living through stressful and new event, some experts say.

Dr. Alan Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University, said an everyday routine is key to keeping down stress levels.

"Routines and rituals help keep a lid on anxiety,” Kazdin said. “You can’t reason a person out of these things.”

Tate said her daughter didn’t talk too much about her fears surrounding the situation, until a window was broken at a store next to Tate’s husband’s barber shop.

“’Is Daddy’s shop still safe?’” Tate recalled her daughter asking. “We have responded to her by watching the news reports together but not too much because that can become overwhelming. We can watch it once a night and try to talk to the facts. “

Tate said her goal has been to support her daughter but also be transparent with her if she does not know the answer to a question and to be clear it is ok to feel scared, afraid or unsettled.

“We talk about normalizing these emotions and the effects of this type of trauma,” Tate said.

Kazdin said monitoring how much children -- both teens and younger ones -- are exposed to events, either on TV or in person, is key in helping them feel safe and calm.

“Many children during September 11 [terrorist acts] had post-traumatic stress symptoms and it was perplexing,” Kazdin said. “They had no contact with September 11[events.] It turns out it was related to the amount of TV they watched [of events.]”

Carolyn Landis, a psychiatrist and professor of pediatrics at the UH Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, said parents can frame the scary events happening outside in a more positive manner to make children feel safe and secure.

“They can be anxious about going back to school and now there is unrest,” Landis said. “Definitely with younger children [parents should] be very careful about having a TV on because [of] nightmares. What they’re exposed to is what they’re going to be dreaming about, try to be as positive as possible.”

Gayle Babcock of the Ferguson Youth Initiative said she has heard from parents that young children have been unable to sleep after seeing or hearing violence in their neighborhood or on the television.

“As an adult I’m traumatized; most of the kids are [too,]” said Babcock, who works mainly with teenagers in the area as part of a traveling youth center. “The kids are saying the police need to talk to youth and need to hear them. The youth are not bad just because they’re teenagers.”

Both Tate and Babcock are working to provide young people and children in the community with access to counselors or other resources so that they don’t feel overwhelmed. Tate has been going to rallies with other counselors to talk to families or teens.

The St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund is planning to send an additional 25 counselors to the school district when classes start, effectively doubling the amount of counselors available to students.

While younger children may be without a clear schedule because of the protests, older teens have had the opportunity to participate in large daily protests likely for the first time. Amy Hunter, director of Racial Justice at the YWCA in St. Louis, said she has talked to many of the younger protesters, some of whom are the same age as her teenage children. She said she has found signs of hopefulness among the protesters, in addition to their anger over the death of Michael Brown.

“For many of the young people it’s one of the first times to have their voice and have their voice heard,” Hunter said. “This is how social movements change forever. I think a lot of the older middle-aged people are encouraging them to have their voices heard in a nonviolent way.”

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