Each child responds differently to disasters depending on his or her understanding and maturity. However disasters can create a great deal of anxiety in children of all ages because they may interpret the disaster as a personal danger to themselves and those they care about. Therefore it is important that you are open about the consequences for your family. Encourage children to talk about their reactions and feelings regardless of their age or relationship to the damage caused by the disaster.
Preschool Age Children:
Behavior such as bed-wetting thumb-sucking baby talk or a fear of sleeping alone may intensify in some younger children or reappear in children who had previously outgrown them. They may complain of very real stomach cramps or headaches and be reluctant to go to school. It is important to remember that these children are not 'being bad' – they are afraid. Here are some suggestions to help them cope with their fears:
- Reassure young children that they are safe.
Provide extra comfort and contact by discussing the child’s fears at night by telephoning during the day and providing extra physical comforting.
- Get a better understanding of a child’s feelings about the disaster.
Discuss the disaster with them and find out each child’s particular fears and concerns. Answer all questions they may ask and provide them loving comfort and care. You can work to structure children’s play so that it remains constructive serving as an outlet for them to express fear or anger.
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Children this age may ask many questions about the disaster and it is important that you try to answer them in clear and simple language. If a child is concerned about a parent who is distressed don’t tell a child not to worry—doing so will just make him or her worry more. Here are several important things to remember with school-age children:
- False reassurance does not help this age group.
Don’t say disasters will never affect your family again; children will know this isn’t true. Instead say 'You’re safe now and I’ll always try to protect you' or 'adults are working very hard to make things safe.' Remind children that disasters are very rare. Children’s fears often get worse around bedtime so you might want to stick around until the child falls asleep in order to make him or her feel protected.
- Monitor children’s media viewing.
Images of the disaster and the damage are extremely frightening to children so consider limiting the amount of media coverage they see. A good way to do this without calling attention to your own concern is to regularly schedule an activity—story reading drawing movies or letter writing for example—during news shows.
- Allow them to express themselves through play or drawing.
As with younger children school-age children sometimes find comfort in expressing themselves through playing games or drawing scenes of the disaster. Allowing them to do so and then talking about it gives you the chance to 're-tell' the ending of the game or the story they have expressed in pictures with an emphasis on personal safety.
- Don’t be afraid to say 'I don’t know.'
Part of keeping discussion of the disaster open and honest is not being afraid to say you don’t know how to answer a child’s question. When such an occasion arises explain to your child that disasters are extremely rare and they cause feelings that even adults have trouble dealing with. Temper this by explaining that even so adults will always work very hard to keep children safe and secure.
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Encourage older youth to work out their concerns about the disaster. Adolescents may try to down-play their worries. It is generally a good idea to talk about these issues keeping the lines of communication open and remaining honest about the financial physical and emotional impact of the disaster on your family. When adolescents are frightened they may express their fear through acting out or regressing to younger habits.
- Children with existing emotional problems such as depression may require careful supervision and additional support.
- Monitor adolescents' media exposure to the event and the information they receive on the Internet.
- Adolescents may turn to their friends for support. Encourage friends and families to get together and discuss the event to allay fears.
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Quick Tips for Parents
Children need comforting and frequent reassurance that they’re safe.
Be open and honest about the disaster but be sure the information is age appropriate.
Encourage children to share their feelings through talking drawing or playing.
Try to maintain your daily routines as much as possible.
Adapted from the National Mental Health Association
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