Help Children Cope with Frightening Events and Disasters



father and childAMES, Iowa -- Coping with a frightening event in the news or a natural disaster can be difficult for children and their families, says Lesia Oesterreich, a family life specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

Children may have many different reactions. “Children may become upset or cry easily, get angry or act out, become restless or have difficulty paying attention,” she said. “Some children may be quiet and withdrawn, while others can’t stop talking about the experience.”

The ISU Extension specialist noted that changes in a child’s behavior may be signs or symptoms of distress or discomfort following a disaster they’ve experienced, such as recent flash flooding, or things they’ve seen on television, such as the Boston Marathon bombing, the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas or the shootings in Newtown, Conn.

Young children may feel vulnerable, Oesterreich said. “They don’t understand what is happening and have trouble communicating how they feel. Older children also may have a hard time expressing their feelings.”

Oesterreich said following a disaster, some children may be afraid of the disaster recurring, or become anxious when there is rain, storms, sirens or other reminders.

Such changes in behaviors are common in children who have been through a disaster, and are natural responses to stress. Some of these symptoms may last for weeks or months, but should diminish over time.

Help children cope

Parents can help their children cope, Oesterreich said. She recommends the following actions:

Limit exposure to TV and media. Graphic TV images and frequently repeated details of unfolding events can produce great anxiety for children. Parents should monitor their own anxiety and offer calm explanations and reassurance to children.

Speak simply and honestly about the situation. Explain to your children what is happening to your family or what they’re seeing on TV. Use simple words they can understand. Be honest. Keep children informed of a problem that will directly affect them, but limit details that will cause them to be overly concerned.

Mother and childCheck children’s level of understanding. Children can easily become confused and may connect a familiar experience such as a neighbor running down the street with a crisis experience. Similarly, if a crisis is happening far away, children may need help understanding that the event is not nearby. Young children sometimes think they are responsible for causing a disaster or that the disaster is some kind of punishment for something they did. You can explain how tornados, storms or floods happen, and how these are unusual but natural patterns of weather.

Make time to comfort and reassure your children. A one-minute chat throughout the day with a gentle hug or a reassuring word may be all children need to feel safer and more secure in an emotional situation. Because young children sometimes have difficulty understanding complex situations, they can easily exaggerate their normal fear of being separated from their parents.

Maintain routines or rituals of comfort. Dinnertime at the kitchen table or a story or a favorite teddy bear at bedtime may provide young children with a sense of security.

Talk with children about how you feel and suggest a positive response. Say something like, “Mommy feels very sad about the families who have lost their loved ones. That is why I am crying. Come and give Mommy a hug.” Giving children something to do makes them feel a part of the family response to the adversity.

Put words of acceptance to your children’s feelings and experiences. Say something similar to “Yes Tommy. It’s OK to cry. A lot of people got hurt at the marathon. But the doctors are taking care of them and helping them.” Be a good listener and supporter.

Show children models of courage, determination, coping and support. “Daddy was up all night putting sandbags around the house. Our neighbors are doing the same. We are all working together.” Point out ways of coping that you use. “When I feel sad I think of the good times we have had and remind myself that things will be better soon.”

Involve children in the family’s efforts to prepare for or recover from a disaster. Remember to keep assigned tasks safe and age-appropriate. Let them know you appreciate their efforts to help the family. Pulling together through adversity will strengthen the family in ways that will last long after the crisis is resolved.

Seek professional advice if needed. Contact your physician or mental health agency if you are worried about your child showing symptoms that are severe or lasting too long. You also can call the ISU Extension and Outreach Iowa Concern hotline, 1-800-447-1985, or contact your ISU Extension and Outreach county office.

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