mother talking with her son

How to Help Children Cope with a Disaster

Survivors of hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and other such events sometimes have a challenge coping in the aftermath. And though adults may shoulder much of the practical burden of recovering, it’s important to recognize that young children and adolescents can face a trying time too.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offer advice for parents and caregivers to follow in the wake of a disaster – what frequently can be a life-altering event for parents and kids. The following tips may be a good starting point for parents who want to talk to their children about disaster and to help them cope effectively.

Observable Reactions

It’s common for children to show signs of regression due to high levels of stress. For example, after a disaster, younger children may return to bed-wetting and sucking their thumbs, SAMHSA says. They can also become overly attached to a parent or other caregiver. Older children and teens may decline to speak about the experience, simply assuring parents that they are “OK.” They may also complain of physical pain as a way of expressing emotional anguish. Children of all ages may display changes in sleeping and eating patterns.

Coping Strategies

Help children cope by teaching them it’s OK to acknowledge something upsetting happened, the AAP says. Speak calmly about how the experience affected you and allow them to express their own feelings. If you cannot explain why something happened, do not feel obligated to give a reason. Instead, the AAP suggests, encourage kids to find their own ways to help (something that’s meaningful to them) so they may help others in the community impacted by the disaster.

Talking and Listening

Discuss what your children are seeing and hearing on television, the Internet, the radio and at school. If you can’t monitor everything they watch, check in regularly to ask what they’ve heard and how they feel about what they’ve seen. Provide a safe emotional place to discuss the events, as well as what has happened as a consequence, and allow your children to express their thoughts and feelings.

SAMHSA offers some helpful additional guidelines by age:

  • Preschool children: Give them lots of cuddling and verbal support; get down to eye level when speaking with them; and tell them you’ll continue taking care of them so they feel safe.
  • Early childhood to adolescence: Ask kids in this age group about what worries them and how they might cope; spend more time than usual with them; excuse them from chores for a day or two, but, after that, make sure they have age-appropriate tasks that can help them feel useful. Returning back to routines can be helpful, so encourage kids to spend time with friends or to engage in recreational activities.

While these are all broad guidelines, SAMHSA also offers a word of caution: Never pressure children into talking about a disaster. While most kids will participate in these kinds of conversations or activities, some won’t, and may even become more frightened.

Recovery can sometimes be a long process, and sometimes parents can’t provide their children with all the help they need. In that case, it’s advisable to seek professional help. Speak to your child’s doctor or teacher about your options, or go to SAMHSA to find more treatment information.

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