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Helping Children Cope With Disasters

Natural disasters, such as the recent hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes can be devastating for everyone. For children just watching the news and listening to parents talk, life's events can seem out of control. This would be much more for children who experienced direct loss and they may need help understanding what happened to their world. Most children look to adults for guidance and understanding on how to react and deal with life's events.

Common reactions of children experiencing stress may include new fears, clinginess, refusal to go to school or other places where they would be separated from familiar adults, regression or withdrawal into depression, or acting up behaviors. How can children be helped through disaster experiences? Doris Brett, a clinical psychologist and author of Annie Stories, recommends the following guidelines for helping children involved in disasters:

• Listen and acknowledge their feelings. Don't tell children they shouldn't be upset. They may be mourning their own or other's losses. It is healthy to express these feelings.
• Tell them in simple language what has happened and reassure them that you will be there for them.
• Recognize they may need repeated reassurance about their safety and concerns.
• Do not lie or cover up what is real and frightening, as children will sense it and worry about the terrible thing you are hiding.
• Let them know that difficulties can be overcome and that this is a time for people to work together to do so.
• Reassure young children that what happened is not their fault. Young children often take on guilt and believe their naughtiness has caused bad things to happen.
• Give lots of hugs and continue any familiar routines like a bedtime story.
• Take familiar toys along with you where you're staying.
• Allow them to draw, play or act out their fears and anger. Get them to tell you about any dreams or nightmares they are having.
• Allow them to help out in some way and take part in family discussions (like how to cut back on costs). This will help them feel more in control and less helpless. If a child's distress seems severe or is not getting better over time, professional help may be needed.

The National Association of School Psychologists reminds all parents and teachers to:

  • Limit your child's viewing of these events. If they must watch, watch with them for a brief time; then turn off the set. Don't sit mesmerized re-watching the same events over and over again.
  • Remain calm and reassuring. Children take their cues from adults, especially young children. To the extent it is possible to do so, assure them that family and friends will take care of them and that life will return to normal.
  • Encourage children to talk about disaster-related events. Children need an opportunity to discuss their experiences in a safe, accepting environment. Seek the help of the school psychologist, counselor, or social worker if you need help with ideas to open the dialogue.
  • Promote positive coping and problem-solving skills. Activities should teach children how to apply problem-solving skills to disaster-related stressors. Encourage children to develop realistic and positive methods of coping that increase their ability to manage their anxiety and to identify which strategies fit with each situation.
  • Emphasize children's resiliency. Focus on their competencies. Help children identify what they have done in the past that helped them cope when they were frightened or upset. Bring their attention to other communities that have experienced natural disasters and recovered (e.g., New Orleans, LA, or Joplin, MO).
  • Strengthen children's friendship and peer support. Children with strong emotional support from others are better able to cope with adversity. Children's relationships with peers can provide suggestions for how to cope and can help decrease isolation. Activities such as asking children to work cooperatively in small groups can help children strengthen supportive relationships with their peers.
  • Take care of your own needs. Take time for yourself and try to deal with your own reactions to the situation as fully as possible. You will be better able to help your children if you are coping well.

Viewing or facing disasters can give children first-hand experience with compassion, determination, and the fortune of giving to and receiving from others. Children can know compassion and service in action against immense setbacks and realities of life.

Source: Strengthening Families, U of I Extension and

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