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When someone close to you is the victim of a dog attack, it is easy to react to the physical injuries. Appropriate attention, love and understanding are a necessary prescription that will work with medical treatment to help in the recovery from the physical wounds. Unfortunately, recognizing and identifying the mental and emotional scars is often a much more difficult task and this makes the healing process far more complex.
As a child begins to face the significance of the experience of a dog attack, those who are close to the victim need to remain alert to clues that there may be a problem coping with the event. These clues may be obvious or very subtle. Notice any changes in behavior, speech, play patterns, sleep habits or any unusual developments. Are there any new and heightened fears in the child, and do they repeat themselves in any kind of pattern? It may be helpful to keep a diary to record your observations.
Although changes in behavior may resolve themselves and go away without any outside help, often times this is not the case. Sometimes the fears and changes created by the dog attack can create entirely new manifestations, with new fears and phobias coming from the mere existence of the first ones. The changes create new anxieties, and the issues for the child begin to mount, which may create an entirely new set of problems. Parents and friends need to carefully distinguish between normal changes in behavior and those changes that are outside of or interfere with normal development.
The changes created in a child’s mind after a dog attack can really stray from the kinds of rational and logical anxieties that you may think would come from the attack. For example, it seems perfectly logical to understand if the child is now terrified of dogs, but more difficult to understand why the child suddenly begins to suck a thumb or stutter. What is important is that those who are close to the child need to remember that the changes and fears, while seemingly out of place or imaginary to everyone else, are very real to the child. Expect the unexpected when it comes to behavior changes, and realize those changes may not happen right away.
If the fears are real to the child, fear and anxiety can feed on itself and the child can develop a “fear of the feelings of fear” that can be overwhelming. By helping the child realize the fears are a product of the attack, you can help the child begin to learn how to deal with the fear of being afraid, and all of the ramifications that come from it. This may help the child feel more secure and in control, even if it does not change the behavior immediately.
Never make fun of, criticize or ignore a child for the fears or behavior changes after a dog attack. This can have the opposite affect on the child from curing the problem. For example, if the child suddenly develops a fear that there are monsters in the bedroom, forcing him to go to sleep alone may make the child realize the error of this belief. However, the more likely outcome is that the fear will feed on itself and create even more changes in the child, such as sleep disorders or worse behavior. Finding the right answer is difficult, because there is not one single cure-all for these problems. Each of us is unique, and this means that every case is different, which is why finding a professional trained in therapy for children is so important.
As the recovery process begins, it is important that family and friends do not go overboard in helping the child. While it is natural to want to shower love and affection on the victim, this behavior can go too far and create its own set of problems. First, it can cause the child to become too dependent on you for things that are still within the ability of the child to do for himself/herself. Even worse, if the child does develop unusual behavior and is rewarded with lavish attention and things being done for him, there is a possibility that the child could think that the way to continue to receive the attention is to continue the behavior. The best course is to discuss this issue with a professional, and to the extent possible, allow the child to continue to do things for himself/herself.
Good reinforcement of behavior that overcomes a fear will help the child get over it or at least come to grips with it. If the child is afraid to walk up the street for fear of seeing a dog, then when he takes the first few steps, words of encouragement such as “You can do it!” may seem simple, but to the child it will mean the world.
Finally, remember that you too may be a victim in need of help. Dealing with the pain that someone you love is experiencing can create its own unique set of problems. Be aware of changes in your own personality and new fears in your life. Recognize these changes and how they may be affecting your relationship with not only the victim, but also other people in your life. By keeping a focus on any effect the event may have on you, there is a greater likelihood that you can remain a positive source of strength for the victim, and in doing so you will help everyone move past the event.
Children's Hospital's main campus is located in the Lawrenceville neighborhood. Our main hospital address is:
UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh
One Children’s Hospital Way
4401 Penn Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15224
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