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Helping Children Deal With Disaster

A catastrophe such as hurricane Sandy is frightening to many kids – and even adults. Talking to your kids about the event can decrease their fear.  It is important to explain the event in words the youngster can understand, and at a level of detail that will not overwhelm him or her. 

Several factors affect a youngster's response to a disaster.  The way kids see how their moms and dads respond to such an event is very important. Kids are aware of their parent’s worries most of the time, but they are particularly sensitive during a crisis. Moms and dads should admit their concerns to their kids, and also stress their abilities to cope with the disaster.  Falsely minimizing the danger will not end a youngster's concerns.

A youngster's reaction also depends on how much destruction and/or death he or she sees during and after the disaster. If a family member or friend has been killed or seriously injured, or if the youngster's school or home has been severely damaged, there is a greater chance that the youngster will experience difficulties.

A youngster's age affects how he or she will respond to the disaster. For example, 5-year-olds may show their worries by refusing to attend school, whereas teens may minimize their concerns, but argue more with moms and dads and show a decline in school performance.

Following a disaster, some children may develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is a set of symptoms that can result from experiencing, witnessing, or participating in an overwhelmingly shocking event. Kids with this disorder have repeated episodes in which they re-experience the traumatic event. Kids often relive the trauma through repetitive play. Upsetting dreams of the traumatic event may turn into nightmares of monsters, of rescuing others, or of threats to self or others. PTSD rarely appears during the trauma itself. Though its symptoms can occur soon after the event, the disorder often surfaces several months or even years later.

After a disaster, moms and dads should be alert to these changes in a youngster's behavior:
  • Behavior problems (e.g., misbehaving in school or at home in ways that are not typical for the youngster)
  • Chronic sadness
  • Decreased activity
  • Intrusive thoughts or worries
  • Jumpiness or being startled easily
  • Listlessness
  • Loss of concentration and irritability
  • Persistent fears related to the catastrophe (e.g., fears about being permanently separated from mom or dad)
  • Physical complaints (e.g., stomachaches, headaches, dizziness) for which a physical cause can’t be found
  • Preoccupation with the events of the disaster
  • Recurring fears about death, leaving mom or dad, or going to school
  • Refusal to return to school and "clinging" behavior
  • Shadowing the mother or father around the house
  • Sleep disturbances (e.g., nightmares, screaming during sleep, bed-wetting) persisting more than several days after the event
  • Withdrawal from family and friends

With the occurrence of hurricane Sandy, mothers and fathers – as well as educators – are faced with the challenge of discussing this overwhelming natural disaster with kids. Although these may be difficult conversations, they are very important.  There is no “right” or “wrong” way to talk with kids about such tragic events.  However, here are some suggestions that may be helpful:

1. Acknowledge and validate children’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Let them know that you think their questions and concerns are important and appropriate.

2. Be prepared to repeat information and explanations several times.  Some information may be hard to accept or understand. Asking the same question over and over may also be a way for a youngster to ask for reassurance.

3. Be reassuring, but don’t make unrealistic promises. It’s fine to let kids know that they are safe in their house or in their school. But you can’t promise that there won’t be another natural disaster.

4. Don’t let kids watch too much television with frightening images. The repetition of such scenes can be disturbing and confusing.

5. Give kids honest answers. Kids will usually know, or eventually find out, if you’re “making things up.” It may affect their ability to trust you or your reassurances in the future.

6. Kids learn from watching their moms and dads and educators. They will be very interested in how you respond to world events. They also learn from listening to your conversations with other grown-ups.

7. Kids who are preoccupied with concerns about natural disasters weeks after the disaster is over should be evaluated by a mental health professional. If worries persist, ask your youngster’s doctor or school counselor to help arrange an appropriate referral.

8. Kids who have experienced trauma in the past are particularly vulnerable to prolonged or intense reactions to news or images of natural disasters. These kids may need extra support and attention.

9. Let kids know that lots of people are helping the families affected by hurricane Sandy.  It’s a good opportunity to show kids that, when something scary happens, there are people to help.

10. Monitor your child for physical symptoms (e.g., headaches and stomachaches). Many kids express anxiety through physical aches and pains. An increase in such symptoms without apparent medical cause may be a sign that a youngster is feeling anxious or overwhelmed.

11. Natural disasters are not easy for anyone to comprehend or accept. Understandably, many kids feel frightened and confused.  We can best help by listening and responding in an honest, consistent and supportive manner. Fortunately, most kids – even those exposed to trauma – are quite resilient.  By creating an open environment where they feel free to ask questions, we can help them cope with stressful events and reduce the risk of lasting emotional difficulties.

12. Remember that it’s best not to force kids to talk about things unless – and until – they’re ready.

13. Remember that kids tend to personalize situations. They may worry about their own safety and the safety of immediate family members.  They may also worry about friends or relatives who travel or who live far away.

14. Some kids may not want to talk about their thoughts, feelings, or fears. They may be more comfortable drawing pictures, or writing stories or poems about the traumatic event.

15. Use words and concepts kids can understand. Gear your explanations to the youngster’s age, language, and developmental level.

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