When disasters happen it can be frightening, chaotic and confusing. Children, especially, can feel very frightened during a disaster and afterwards some can exhibit temporary changes of behavior. For most children these changes will be mild, not last long, and diminish with time. However, reminders of what happened could cause upsetting feelings to return and behavior changes to emerge again. Watching scenes of the disaster on television can be distressing for children, especially for younger children. Younger children may return to bed-wetting, have difficulty sleeping, and not want to be separated from their caregivers. Older children may show more anger than usual, find concentrating at school harder, and want to spend more time alone than usual. Some children are more vulnerable, and their reactions can be more severe and last for a longer period of time. Factors that contribute to greater vulnerability include:
- Direct exposure to the disaster. This includes being evacuated, seeing injured or dying people, being injured themselves, and feeling that their own lives are threatened.
- Personal loss. This includes the death or serious injury of a family member, close friend, or family pet.
- On-going stress from the secondary effects of disaster. This includes temporarily living elsewhere, losing contact with their friends and neighbors, or losing things that are important to them, parental job loss, and the financial costs of reestablishing their previous living conditions.
- Prior exposure to disasters or other traumatic events.
How parents and caregivers react to and cope with a disaster or emergency situation can affect the way their children react. When parents and caregivers or other family members are able to deal with the situation calmly and confidently, they are often the best source of support for their children. One way to help children feel more confident and in control is to involve them in preparing a family disaster plan.
How Children React to Disaster
The following are common reactions that children may exhibit following a disaster. While the descriptions are typical, some children may exhibit none of these behaviors and others may behave in ways not mentioned.
Birth Through 6 Years. Although infants may not have words to describe their experiences, they can retain memories. They may react by being more irritable, crying more than usual, or wanting to be held and cuddled more. Preschool and kindergarten children can feel helpless, powerless, and frightened about being separated from their caregivers.
7 Through 10 Years. Older children can understand the permanence of loss. They may become preoccupied with the details of the traumatic event and want to talk about it continually. This preoccupation can interfere with their concentration at school and affect their social and/or academic performance.
Keep in mind that older children, in particular, may hear inaccurate information from their peers. They may fear that the disaster will happen again and have sad or angry feelings. Parents and Caregivers can clarify the facts and help their kids understand what’s really happening.
What Parents and Caregivers Can Do
It is important for parents and other caregivers to understand what is causing a child’s anxieties and fears. Following a disaster, children are most afraid that the event will happen again, or that someone close to them will be killed or injured. Children may also feel they will be left alone or separated from their family. Parents and caregivers can clarify misunderstandings of risk and danger by acknowledging children’s concerns and perceptions. Discussions of preparedness plans can strengthen a child’s sense of safety and security. Listen to what a child is saying. If a young child asks questions about the event, answer them simply without the elaboration needed for an older child or adult. Understand that all kids are different and their needs will vary in the amount of information they need and can use.
Regardless of your child’s age, he or she may feel upset or have other strong emotions after an emergency. Some children react right away, while others may show signs of difficulty much later. How a child reacts and the common signs of distress can vary according to the child’s age, previous experiences, and how the child typically copes with stress. If a child has difficulty expressing his or her thoughts and feelings, allowing them to draw a picture or tell a story of what happened may help.
Parents and Caregivers Can Take Action
- Encourage your children to talk and listen to their concerns. Calmly provide factual information about the disaster and plans for ensuring their ongoing safety.
- Involve your children in updating your family disaster plan and disaster supplies kit (refer to Prepare Your Family below)
- Practice your plan and involve your children by giving them specific tasks to let them know they can help restore family and community life.
- Spend extra time with your children.
- Re-establish as quickly as possible daily routines for work, school, play, meals, and rest.
While the primary responsibility to deal with disasters begins at home, our caring, professional staff at Riley Crossing Child Care are well-versed in developing and implementing a daily curriculum that enriches children’s lives not only during periods of relative calm, but also during times of crisis and stress. Our unique approach maintains and nurtures a safe environment for kids regardless of the events happening around them. We will work with parents and primary caregivers to assist with each child’s situation.
Monitor and Limit Exposure to the Media
News coverage of the disaster can cause fear, confusion and anxiety in children. This is particularly true for a large-scale disaster or terrorist event, in which significant property damage and loss of life has occurred. Especially for younger children, repeatedly watching images of an event can cause them to believe the event is occurring again and again. Parents and caregivers should be available to encourage communication and provide explanations when children view images or news about the disaster. Parents can also ease their own minds by limiting their exposure to anxiety-provoking information.
Prepare Your Family
Preparing for disaster helps everyone in the family accept the fact that disasters do happen, and that they can do something about it. Families should work together to identify and collect the resources needed to meet basic needs during and after disaster. When people feel prepared, they cope better. Create a Family Disaster Plan and discuss with your family and caregivers the hazards that could impact your local area, the potential for community evacuation or sheltering, and your community’s warning systems and what to do if they are used. Determine where to meet in the event of an emergency, either at home or away. Designate one location right outside your home in case of a sudden emergency, like a fire, and another location outside your neighborhood in case you can’t return home. Ask an out-of-town friend or relative to be your emergency contact. Following a disaster, family members and caregivers should call this person and tell them where they are. Make a communication plan where all family members (including caregivers) know how to contact each other. Include provisions for your pets in your family disaster plan. Once you have developed your plan, you need to practice and maintain it. For example, ask questions to make sure your family remembers meeting places, phone numbers, and safety rules. Conduct routine fire and emergency evacuation drills, test fire alarms, and replace and update disaster supplies.
Confidence and Calm
Children react, in large part, to what they see from the adults around them. When parents and caregivers deal with a disaster calmly and confidently, they can provide the best support for their children. Parents and caregivers should strive to stay calm and reassure children. Talk to them about what is happening in a way that they can understand. Keep it simple and appropriate for each child’s age. When possible, provide children with opportunities to talk about what they went through or what they think about it. Encourage them to share concerns and ask questions.
Parents and caregivers can be more reassuring to others around them, especially children if they are better prepared. It is difficult to predict how some children will respond to disasters and traumatic events. Because parents, teachers, and other adults see children in different situations, it is important for them to work together to share information about how each child is coping after a traumatic event.