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How To Help Children Following A Disaster

by Dr. Donald Denton, LPC
edited by Dr. Nedra Voorhies, LPC

Be Reassurring

Children take their cue from the adults around them.
Focus on the realistic steps being taken to protect them and solve the crime.
Adults should speak with another adult about their own anxieties and theories

Be Understanding

Very young children may briefly regress to more immature behavior.
Young children may act out their fears by role-playing.
Children may tell you inappropriate jokes. Be gentle with your response.

Be Realistic

Limit your family's news exposure
Explore the topic once with your child, but don't turn your home into a 24/7news site or an armed camp.

Be Faithful

Use religious resources that acknowledge the presence of predatory evil.
Pray for those affected by this tragedy.

Young Children

Retain a basic trust in authorities and parents.
Do need to see the adults around them responding realistically to threat or trauma yet without undue anxiety.

Middle School Children

May be unsure how to express their anger and worry.
Most likely to tell a parent or teacher inappropriate jokes or puns.

High School Children

Benefit from adult-oriented discussion.
Will see the irony of "No School - Let's Go to the Mall!"
Will struggle to understand predatory evil and show an interest in solving the problem or responding to the challenge. This may take the form of wanting to help in some practical way.
A disaster, whether community wide or involving only a single family, may leave children especially frightened, insecure, or upset about what happened. They may display a variety of emotional responses after a disaster, and it is important to recognize that these responses are normal.
How a parent reacts will make a great difference in the child's understanding and recovery after the disaster. Parents should make every effort to keep the children informed about what is happening and to explain it in terms that they can understand. However, parents also need to focus on maintaining the family's routine as much as possible. If parents have increased anxieties, the parents need to seek out another adult for support.

The following list includes some of the reactions you may see in your child:

Crying or depression
Depression in children often is expressed through anger
Inability to concentrate Bedwetting
Withdrawal and isolation thumb sucking
Not wanting to attend school Nightmares
Headaches Clinging/fear of being left alone
Changes in eating and sleeping habits Regression to previous behaviors
Excessive fear of darkness Fighting
Increase in physical complaints

Some things that will help your child recover are:

Talk about what happened.
Hug and touch your younger children often.
Middle School and High School children may express initial resistance to hugs - hug them anyway!
Reassure the young child that you are safe and together.
Talk with your child about his/her feelings about the disaster.
Share some of your feelings too. But remember, your child is not your therapist.
Give information the child can understand.
Spend extra time with your child at bedtime.
Allow children to grieve about their lost treasures - a toy, a blanket, a lost home.
Talk with your child about what you will do if another disaster strikes. Let your child help in preparing and planning for future disasters.
Try to spend extra time together in family activities to begin replacing fears with pleasant memories.
If your child is having problems at school, talk to the teacher so that you can work together to help your child.
Usually a child's emotional response to a disaster does not last long. Be aware that some problems may not appear immediately or may recur months after the disaster. Talking openly with your children will help them to recover more quickly from the loss. If you feel your child may need additional help to recover from the disaster, contact your Employee Assistance Program, or your Mental Health Association.

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