Helping Children Cope with Traumatic Stress in Disastrous Situations

It’s hard to compete for attention with the physical dimensions of trauma. When disaster strikes, physical trauma is everywhere, impossible not to see.  Destruction of life, limb, and property overwhelm the senses. Think of Sandy, Fukushima, or Katrina – what comes to mind? Water, mud, and sand rushing through streets and homes; people marooned on porches and rooftops or swept away by torrents; familiar landscapes obliterated. Less visible, but often just as harmful, are mental and emotional aspects of trauma. And when it comes to our kids, we need to pay special attention to what the stress of experiencing and surviving a disaster can do.
Everyone needs support to recover from disaster, but children need the most. Their brains are still developing; this makes them especially vulnerable to trauma, but also resilient – if given the right kind of care and attention. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, kids may have trouble understanding what has happened. They struggle to adjust to a change in place and routine. They look to adults, who are often traumatized themselves, to make them feel safe. Disaster can also awaken memories of past traumas that have threatened their sense of security. This makes it especially important to reassure children that they and their loved ones are safe.
We can’t predict most disasters. But, we can prepare for them. That preparation must include parents, teachers, and caregivers looking for the early signs of trauma and learning how to help children quickly through whatever trauma they have experienced. Early help is important. Here are some tips that my organization, Turnaround for Children, shared with teachers, principals, social workers, and parents at our partner schools in New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy:

  • Recognize signs of trauma: While children react to trauma in a variety of ways, they almost always exhibit physical symptoms. They may have trouble sleeping or have nightmares; be unable to concentrate; and exhibit anger, irritability, or helplessness. Sometimes children revert to baby-like behaviors and may be reluctant to separate from a parent or caregiver. These symptoms may not show up right away – they sometimes take weeks or months to surface and can last for up to a year.
  • Talk about what’s going on. Regardless of age, children are not oblivious to what goes on around them. Reinforcing safety after tragedy is very important to help children cope. Explain the situation without too many “gory” details.  Allow children to ask questions – they often have many. It is important that kids hear what is going on from a trusted adult, rather than media.
  • Try to maintain routine. Even in the middle of chaos, it is important to create some sense of normalcy to help children cope. For example, when families have been displaced and transplanted to an unfamiliar setting, maintaining consistency – even if it’s something as simple as a bedtime story – can help children feel safe.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s common for kids to have nightmares, complain of stomachaches, and say they are scared, but too much of those behaviors may be a signal that something more is going on. Seek help from a mental health professional if it seems like too much, remembering that if kids have had a recent loss or been exposed to other trauma in their lives, they are much more likely to struggle. Get in touch with a local community mental health provider or contact one of the organizations listed below.
  • Reinforce a sense of safety. For many children, the worry will not be for themselves. Just as parents worry for their children, kids worry for their parents.Watching parents or caregivers stress over how to restore their old lives can be difficult to cope with. It is important to let children know that the important people in their lives are safe. Remind children (and yourself!) that everyone is safe and things will return to normal, even if it is a new normal, but it won’t happen overnight.

rainyday-1024x768Additional Resources to Help Children after a Disaster

Dr. Pamela Cantor

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