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How to Help Your Children Cope with Disasters

Nicholas Long, PhD

Arkansas Children's Hospital and University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Department of Pediatrics

Tornados, floods and other natural disasters, as well as human-caused catastrophes, can be extremely frightening and stressful to children. Many children experience a normal stress reaction for several days to even a few weeks following a disaster, especially one that has directly impacted them. Such normal reactions may include, but are not limited to, shock, anger, fear, confusion and irritability.

The good news is that most children are quite resilient in the long-term to this type of stress - if they are able to receive effective support and assistance from their parents and other caregivers in the aftermath of the disaster. In other words, it is important to understand that the manner in which parents and other adults interact with children during and following such crises can determine, to a large extent, how effectively the children will cope with the disaster in the long-term.

Below are specific recommendations for parents and other caregivers regarding ways they can help children cope more effectively with disasters. By following these recommendations, the potential for long-term psychological problems related to the disaster may be minimized for children.

  • React in a matter-of-fact way. This is perhaps the single most important recommendation. Children will look to their parents and other adults for clues on how they should react to a disaster or crisis. If they see a lot of drama and fear, they will become frightened and confused. Parents and other caregivers who act calmly and avoid over-reacting during and following a disaster send a strong message of security to their children.

  • Explain simply and directly. Provide an explanation of the disaster as simply and directly as possible. Try to remain as calm as possible. Older children and adolescents may benefit from a more detailed explanation than younger children. Be honest - don't lie. However, you don't need to tell your child all the gory details of pain and personal tragedy that sometimes accompany a disaster. Explain the details at a level that you think your child can process and understand.

  • Encourage and anticipate questions. Your children will likely have many questions that they would like to ask. Encourage them to ask you questions. Try to anticipate their questions so you can think ahead about how you might respond to questions such as: Why did this happen? Will it happen again?

  • Listen to your children. Encourage but don't force your children to talk about the disaster. Let them talk about what they have heard from others' conversations or the media. Correct any inaccuracies they might have heard. Explain that following disasters there are often many rumors or stories that turn out not to be true. Encourage your children to ask questions and describe what they are feeling. Acknowledge their feelings in a non-judgmental manner.

  • Offer reassurance. Following a disaster the issue of greatest concern to most children is their own safety and the safety of their family. Provide frequent reassurance to your children. Let them know their safety is your primary concern and you will take care of them. Stress the reasons why your child should feel safe (for example, that they do not live near the location of the disaster). Tell them about all that is being done to protect them and their family.

  • Be optimistic. Try to create a sense of optimism about the future. Help your children see that the future will be brighter. Spirituality, however a family defines it, can be a great source of strength and hope. This is a perfect time to discuss family values and belief systems.

  • Restrict access to television and other media. Watching terrifying visual images of disasters can overwhelm children. Repeated exposure to media coverage of disasters has been shown to increase children's anxiety. Make sure you limit what your children watch and listen to through the media. When older children watch news coverage, try to watch with them so you can discuss what was viewed.

  • Maintain normalcy as much as possible. Try to maintain normal daily routines and schedules (for example, mealtimes and bedtimes) as much as possible following a disaster. When disasters interrupt children's routines and schedules, they tend to become more anxious. It is also important to continue providing discipline to your children.

  • Encourage good deeds. Encourage older children and adolescents to do volunteer work in the community or help in other ways. Helping others following a disaster can provide children with a sense of control and help them overcome a sense of powerlessness.

  • Seek professional assistance, if needed. If your child shows highly significant or long-lasting problems (for example, ongoing anxiety, depression, persistent fears, excessive clinginess, excessive anger, decline in schoolwork, ongoing sleep and/or eating problems, withdrawal from family and friends) as a result of the disaster, you should contact your child's health care provider for assistance or referral.

A Stormy Conversation

Living in the heart of tornado alley, Arkansas families are often faced with severe weather situations that may frighten children. It's important to think about how to address these circumstances. We turned to chief meteorologist Ed Buckner, who guides viewers through severe weather each season on Today's THV. Buckner, who has teenage daughters, chatted with Parenting in Arkansas about how his family has coped with tornado season and shared some tips for talking to kids.

PIA: Should parents talk with their kids about severe weather?

EB: I think parents should only talk to their kids about severe weather if they recognize a problem or fear from the child. In some cases, not drawing attention to storms is a good policy, but if any child asks or is fearful then it should be addressed.

PIA: What's appropriate to say to a child about severe weather?

EB: It depends on the child's age as to what is appropriate. It's hard for very young children to understand severe weather in a logical way. I tell very small children things like, "Lightning and thunder are Mother Nature's way of
sneezing."

PIA: When severe weather does occur, do you have any guidelines on instructing kids about steps to take - especially for older kids who might be home alone without adults?

EB: The same safety rules apply for all. It's important that kids young and old know where to go when severe weather threatens. If they are going to be home alone, they need to know where their safe place is.

PIA: When is the right time to discuss these things? Before severe weather strikes? Or is the severe weather itself a good "teaching moment"?

EB: During severe weather, or when questions are asked, is the best time to discuss it. It's more immediate this way.

PIA: How have you addressed severe weather with your kids?

EB: My kids have always had a good understanding of severe weather. They've heard about it from me all the time for 15 and 18 years!

PIA: What kinds of questions do your kids ask about severe weather?

EB: Being the children of a meteorologist, my kids were always well instructed on severe weather. Matter of fact, they should be answering these questions!

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