Talking To Your Child About Natural Disasters Back »

This article was written collaboratively by Ann Michelle Daniels and Mark Britzman.


When a major disaster such as the blizzard occurs within your community or half way around the world, if your child has access to any source of media (TV, radio, Internet), they will know about it quickly and may have underlying fears and questions about the situation that need to be addressed. As difficult as it may be to discuss these issues, it is VERY important for your child.

First of all, it is important to know that a child can usually sense when a parent is worried or afraid. If at all possible after a disaster that is close to home, try to maintain a calm, relaxed environment for your child. It is important to reassure the child that you are doing everything you can to keep your home and them safe. Also you can explain to the child that the community is making their school and other businesses in the community safe as well (Department of Education, 2005). If it is not possible to maintain a relaxed environment, it is important to explain to the child what you are feeling and why. Even if they cannot tell you are worried, it is still very important to express to them what you are feeling to keep communication lines open.

When talking to your child it is important to tell the truth about what has happened but do not scare your child more than they already are. Find out what fears your child has and talk about it. You may be able to explain to your child if some of their fears will not occur (example: South Dakota will not experience a hurricane). Make sure to use words that they can understand. Your reassurances need to be developmentally appropriate. It is important to listen to your child’s questions and answer them honestly, even if they ask the same question more than once. This may be a form of reassurance to the child that they are safe. Let your child know that their questions and reactions are important to you.

If your child does not want to talk about the event, do not force them. They need to express their fears in other ways. You can suggest that they draw pictures, play with toys, or write stories or poems that can be directly or indirectly related to current events. (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2003)

Children will react to crisis situations differently depending on their age. Preschool age children have not had the chance to develop their own coping skills yet, therefore – they will depend on their caregivers to help them through the stress. You may see that your child starts doing activities that they did years ago- that is – they may have regressed in their behavior. This could include that they start sucking their thumbs, become afraid of certain things, or start wetting the bed. They also may change their eating and sleeping behaviors, may act out by becoming disobedient or hyperactive. Aggressive behavior may surface that is not typical or they can also withdraw from things that they usually enjoyed doing. Your preschooler may always exaggerate when they talk about the event and like talking about it over and over.

Children who are ages 5 to 11 may react much like the younger children. You may see that they withdraw from spending time with their friends or activities they normally would partake in. Children at this age may also compete for attention after a disaster and not want to go to school because of fear. Their school performance may deteriorate. They can have concentration issues and become more aggressive than normal. They also may return to childish behaviors such as asking for help being fed or being dressed.

Adolescent children often suffer from physical discomfort when under a high amount of stress. They may choose not to do their chores, homework or other responsibilities given to them that they handled before the event. They may compete for attention from their parents or teachers, but might also withdraw from friends or hobbies, resist authority and become disruptive in their behaviors. This can also increase the likelihood that some children will experiment in high-risk behaviors.

Older adolescents may experience a sense of helplessness and guilt as they are stuck in the stage between adulthood and childhood. They cannot take on adult responsibilities in community response to the event when they might like to. Older teens might also deny the extent of their feelings towards the crisis. (Dept. of Health & Human Services, 2005)

Parents should be alert to these possible changes in their child’s behavior:

  • Refusal to return to school and “clinging” behavior
  • Persistent fears related to the current event or other crisis situations
  • Sleep disturbances, nightmares, screaming in their sleep or bedwetting.
  • Loss of concentration and irritability
  • Startled easily, jumpy
  • Behavior issues: Misbehaving in school or at home that is not typical to your child
  • Physical complaints – stomachaches, headaches, dizziness
  • Withdrawal from family & friends, sadness, decreased activity
  • Preoccupation with the events surrounding the disaster

(American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2004)

There are many things you can do to ease the effects of a crisis situation on your child. Beyond talking to them about the event it is important to monitor and limit your child’s exposure to television, radio and internet reports and images of the event. This can bother the child even more as time passes. Help your child stay on a normal routine if at all possible. Children are reassured by familiarity and structure in their lives (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2003).

Involving children in activities where they can help the victims of the crisis is a good way to help the child cope with their feelings. The activities the child can do will depend on their age. Younger children can send drawings and cards to disaster victims or the rescue teams; older children may want to donate blood or volunteer with a community organization that is offering to help the victims, such as the American Red Cross (Department of Education, 2005).

It is important to watch for physical symptoms of stress in your child during times of crisis. Many children show anxiety through physical aches that do not appear to have a medical cause. Relay information to your child’s teachers about specific fears or concerns that your child has. Children who have been through previous trauma are more at risk for intense reactions. It is important to watch for this to provide them with more support and attention when necessary. If your child seems preoccupied or very stressed about crisis situations they should be evaluated by a mental health professional as it could be a sign of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2004).

Each school in the community should have a policy in place regarding communicating disaster or crisis information with their staff, the children and the parents. This information should come in a timely fashion and be clear about how the school will function in the event of a crisis and the days immediately following. The school should identify one staff member to be in charge of leading the communication of these policies to the parents and staff. Another person, preferably with mental health background should be available to provide support to their school community. The administration should make it clear how parents can seek information on the policies and to get support or guidance. If you wish to know how your child’s school handles crisis situations, contact the school administration. (New York University Child Study Center, 2006)

If you are a teacher or child care provider there are a few things that you can do before and after a disaster for your students. First, identify the children you think will be at risk for more problems in handling the situation. This could be children that are directly impacted by the disaster or those with previous mental health issues. Work with the school’s mental health professional to develop a plan for recognizing warning signs of the children in your classroom or in your care. During and following an event, provide the children with a safe and reassuring environment as much as possible. Although children should not be forced to talk about the event, they should be encouraged to express their feelings by letting them know it is okay to do so. If it seems fitting, you can create a memorial within your school or classroom. School memorials should be kept brief and age appropriate. Other ongoing tasks to keep in mind is to first - the extent possible, resume a normal routine for the school day. This will help the children feel that the situation has not taken over their daily lives. Make sure to reassure the children that school staff and other adults in the community and doing everything they can to keep everyone safe. Allow the students to discuss the event in the classroom – but make it optional so that those who are not comfortable with talking about it are not forced to do so. Make yourself aware to the signs that a child may need extra support. Another important aspect that is often overlooked is to take care of yourself and your colleagues. Create ways that the staff can support one another. Lastly, keep your children’s parents informed on the activities and recommendations surrounding the situation. Let them know what is being done within the school so that they are prepared to discuss things with their children (NYUCSC, 2006).

Beyond the school and parent connection, it is also important that the entire community works together in facing disaster. It is important that all citizens are educated on what the proper preparations and responses and when a disaster will strike. Elected officials work with multiple city departments and organizations in preparing their community for a disaster. Some departments such as the police and fire departments work directly in first responses during a crisis situation. They have plans for what to do in the event of a major disaster. Other organizations, such as the American Red Cross, focus of educating the community members in helping prepare themselves and their families in the event of a disaster.

For additional information on talking to you child about disaster, war and terrorism there are many resources that you may utilize. The Cooperative Extension EDEN, National Institute of Mental Health, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence, and your local American Red Cross and Cooperative Extension Educator, are just a few excellent sources that can provide you with a variety of sources to guide you in discussing these hard topics with your child.

Sources:

  • Caring for kids after trauma, disaster and death: A guide for parents and professionals. 2006. New York University Child Study Center. http://www.aboutourkids.org/files/articles/crisis_guide02.pdf
  • Facts for the family: Helping children after a disaster. 2004. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry # 36
  • Facts for the family: Talking to children about terrorism and war. 2003. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry # 87
  • Finding the calm during the storm. Chicago Children’s Museum.
  • Suggestions for adults: Talking and thinking with children about the terrorist attacks. 2005. U.S Department of Education. www.ed.gov.
  • Tips for talking to children after a disaster: A guide for parents and teachers. 2005. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. www.samhsa.gov
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