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 help them cope effectively.
Watch for Changes in Behavior
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.
Acknowledge Their Feelings
Help children cope by teaching them it’s OK to feel upset or afraid after something major has 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 and simply acknowledge that you don’t know. The AAP suggests encouraging kids to help others in the community affected by the disaster in a way that is meaningful to them.
Discuss what your children are seeing and hearing on television, the Internet, the radio and at school. Try to limit how much they are seeing and hearing about the event, and check in regularly to ask what they’ve heard and how they feel about what they’ve seen, says SAMHSA. 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:
- Reassure them verbally and with extra cuddling.
- Get down to eye level and use a calm voice when speaking with them.
- Tell them you’ll continue taking care of them to help them feel safe.
Early childhood to adolescence:
- Ask them about their worries and how they might cope.
- Spend some extra time with them.
- Excuse them from chores for a few days, but return to age-appropriate tasks to help them feel useful.
- Returning to routines can be helpful, so encourage kids to spend time with friends or to engage in recreational activities.
While these are broad guidelines, SAMHSA also suggests never pressuring children into talking about a disaster. Many kids will participate in these kinds of conversations or activities, but some won’t and may even become more frightened.
Recovery can be a long process, and sometimes parents can’t provide their children with all the help they need. In that case, you may want to seek professional help. Speak to your child’s doctor or teacher about your options, or go to SAMHSA to find more treatment information.
Originally published October 16, 2013.