Helping children cope with trauma and disaster [Guest Post]
Disasters like earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes or even terrorist attacks and violent crimes can be petrifying for kids and teens. Children may relate with what they see on the news to themselves and their lives. Could something like this happen to me? The very thoughts are traumatizing.
How children understand the event depends on their stage of development. Whenever a traumatic event or anniversary of a disaster or crisis event occurs, parents and teachers need to both comfort children and explain the realities to them in a language that is age-appropriate, with an eye to helping them cope with long-lasting trauma.
Small children can be particularly vulnerable when disaster or trauma hits. They may be unable to understand what turned their lives and those of their families upside down because they’re fearful, sad, confused, depressed and angry, and that may manifest itself in behavior such as bed-wetting, sleep problems and separation anxiety.
During traumatic situations, children are most afraid that the event will happen again. They also may feel that they will lose someone close to them or that they will be left alone or separated from their family. Below are some suggestions for children, teachers and parents seeking coping skills to deal with the aftermath of a traumatic experience or a natural disaster:
Talk about it
Children and teens regain a sense of control by talking about the trauma. Don’t minimize the situation by telling them that there’s nothing to be afraid of. Instead, listen to them and be compassionate towards their fears. You may also want to relay your own fearful experiences as words of understanding and comfort. Kids need to know that their parents understand and share their worries, but in a positive way. At the same time, too much information can be confusing and scary to kids and teens. It’s critical that children are not burdened with the full extent of their parents’ worries. Share worries in an age-appropriate way.
Remain as calm as possible and also maintain your regular routines as much as you can, like observing normal mealtime and bedtime rituals. Routines can help provide a sense of security. Also, kids should still attend school, and do the normal things they do outside of the home. Adult conversations about catastrophe, trauma and disaster should be initiated when the kids are out of the room.
During a traumatizing experience, children and teens tend to be more clingy, may be aggressive and suffer from more separation anxiety. You might even see regressive behavior like wetting the bed, sucking their thumb and they may become very afraid of being left alone. In general, regressive behaviors will go away in the days, weeks and months following a trauma. If children’s fears or anxious behaviors persist or if children suffer from delayed reactions, parents and caregivers should seek professional counseling.
Be with Loved Ones
Children and teens need to be with their family to feel safe. Physical reassurance is a great comfort and parents can give children and teens a sense of security by physically holding and reassuring them. They can also be assured by letting them know that they are safe and that they are being taken care of. If a family is in a shelter or somewhere other than the home due to a natural disaster, for example, it’s important to remain together so children and teens feel safe and secure. Displaced children will require more physical comforting and reassurance.
About the author
David Novak is a international syndicated newspaper columnist, appearing in newspapers, magazines, radio and TV around the world. His byline has appeared in GQ, National Geographic, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, USA Today, among others, and he has appeared on The Today Show, the CBS Morning Show and Paul Harvey Radio. David is a specialist at consumer technology, health and fitness, and he also owns a PR firm and a consulting company where he and his staff focus on these industries. He is a regular contributing editor for Healthline. For more information, visit http://www.healthline.com/.