AMES, Iowa -- Coping with a frightening event in the news or a natural disaster can be difficult for children and their families, says Lori Hayungs, a human science 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,” said Hayungs, who specializes in family life issues. “Some children may be quiet and withdrawn, while others can’t stop talking about the experience.”
Changes in children’s behavior may be signs or symptoms of distress or discomfort following a disaster they’ve experienced, such as recent hurricanes, or things they’ve seen on television, such as the Las Vegas shooting, Hayungs said.
Young children may feel vulnerable, Hayungs continued. “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.”
After a disaster, some children may be afraid it will happen again, or become anxious when there are storms, sirens or other reminders, Hayungs said.
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 and other caregivers can help their children cope, Hayungs said. The specialist 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 and be honest,” Hayungs said. Keep children informed of a problem that will directly affect them, but limit details that will cause them to be overly concerned.
Check 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. Adults can explain how hurricanes, tornadoes or floods happen, and how these are unusual but natural patterns of weather.
Make time to comfort and reassure 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 children’s feelings and experiences. Say something similar to “Yes Tommy. It’s OK to cry. A lot of people got hurt at the concert. 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.Talk about how people worked together during the crisis. Point out ways of coping, such as, “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 children know their efforts to help are appreciated. 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,” Hayungs said.
Resources from ISU Extension and Outreach include the Iowa Concern hotline, 1-800-447-1985, ISU Extension and Outreach county offices, and the Finding Answers Now website.
Photo credit: iofoto/stock.adobe.com