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Helping Children Cope with Disaster

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Earthquakes, Tornadoes, Fires, Floods, Hurricanes and Hazardous Materials Spills

Disaster may strike quickly and without warning. These events can be frightening for adults, but they are traumatic for children if they don't know what to do.

During a disaster, your family may have to leave your home and daily routine. Children may become anxious, confused or frightened. As an adult, you'll need to cope with the disaster in a way that will help children avoid developing a permanent sense of loss. It is important to give children guidance that will help them reduce their fears.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the American Red Cross have prepared this brochure to help you help your children cope. Ultimately, you should decide what's best for your children, but consider using these suggestions as guidelines.

Children and Their Response to Disaster

Children depend on daily routines: they wake up, eat breakfast, go to school, play with friends. When emergencies or disasters interrupt this routine, children may become anxious.

Children may respond to disaster by demonstrating increased anxiety or emotional and behavioral problems. Some younger children may return to earlier behavior patterns, such as bed wetting and separation anxiety. Older children may react to physical and emotional disruptions with aggression or withdrawal. Even children who have only indirect contact with the disaster may have unresolved feelings.

In most cases, such responses are temporary. As time passes, symptoms usually ease. However, high winds, sirens or other reminders of the emotions associated with the disaster may cause anxiety to return.

Children imitate the way adults cope with emergencies. They can detect adults' uncertainty and grief. Adults can make disasters less traumatic for children by maintaining a sense of control over the situation. The most assistance you can provide a child is to be calm, honest, and caring.

In a disaster, they'll look to you and other adults for help. How you react to an emergency gives them clues on how to act. If you react with alarm, a child may become more scared. If you seem overcome with a sense of loss, a child may feel their losses more strongly.

Children's fears also may stem from their imagination, and you should take these feelings seriously. A child who feels afraid is afraid. Your words and actions can provide reassurance. When talking with your child, be sure to present a realistic picture that is both honest and manageable.

Feelings of fear are healthy and natural for adults and children. But as an adult, you need to keep control of the situation. When you're sure that danger has passed, concentrate on your child's emotional needs by asking the child what's uppermost in his or her mind. Having children participate in the family's recovery activities will help them feel that their life will return to "normal." Your response during this time may have a lasting impact.

Be aware that after a disaster, children are most afraid that -

  • The event will happen again.
  • Someone will be injured or killed.
  • They will be separated from the family.
  • They will be left alone.

A Child's Reaction to Disaster by Age

Below are some common physical and emotional reactions in children after a disaster or traumatic event:

Birth to 2 Years
When children are pre-verbal and experience a trauma, they do not have the words to describe the event or their feelings. However,they can retain memories of particular sights, sounds, or smells. Infants may react to trauma by being irritable, crying more than usual, or wanting to be held and cuddled. As children get older, their play may involve acting out elements of the traumatic event that occurred several years in the past and was seemingly forgotten.
Preschool - 2 to 6 Years
Preschool children often feel helpless and powerless in the face of an overwhelming event. Because of their age and small size, they lack the ability to protect themselves or others. As a result, they feel intense fear and insecurity. Preschoolers cannot grasp the concept of permanent loss. They see consequences as being reversible. In the weeks following a traumatic event, preschoolers' play activities may involve aspects of the event. They may reenact the incident or the disaster over and over again.
School-Age - 8 to 10 Years
The school-age child has the ability to understand the permanence of loss. Some children become intensely preoccupied with the details of a traumatic event and want to talk about it continually. This preoccupation can interfere with the child's concentration at school and academic performance may decline. School-aged children may display a wide range of reactions - guild, feelings of failure, anger that the event was not prevented, or fantasies of playing rescuer.
Pre-Adolescence to Adolescence - 11 to 18 Years
As children grow older, their responses begin to resemble adults' reaction to trauma. They combine some more childlike reactions with others that seem more consistent with adult reactions. Survival of trauma can be equated with a sense of immortality. A teenager may become involved in dangerous, risk-taking behavior, such as reckless driving or alcohol or drug use. In contrast, a teenager can become fearful of leaving home. Much of adolescence is focused on moving out into the world. After a trauma, the world can seem dangerous and unsafe. A teenager may feel overwhelmed by intense emotions, and yet feel unable to discuss them with relatives.

Information courtesy of the American Red Cross and the University of Illinois.

Advice to Parents: Prepare for Disaster

You can create a Family Disaster Plan by taking four simple steps. First, learn what hazards exist in your community and how to prepare for each. Then meet with your family to discuss what you would do, as a group, in each situation. Next, take steps to prepare your family for disaster such as: posting emergency phone numbers, selecting an out-of-state family contact, assembling disaster supplies kits for each member of your household and installing smoke detectors on each level of your home. Finally, practice your Family Disaster Plan so that everyone will remember what to do when a disaster does occur.

  • Develop and practice a Family Disaster Plan. Contact your local emergency management or civil defense office, or your local Red Cross chapter for materials that describe how your family can create a disaster plan. Everyone in the household, including children, should play a part in the family's response and recovery efforts.
  • Teach your child how to recognize danger signals. Make sure your child knows what smoke detectors, fire alarms and local community warning systems (horns, sirens) sound like.
  • Explain how to call for help. Teach your child how and when to call for help. Check the telephone directory for local emergency phone numbers and post these phone numbers by all telephones, clearly visible to children. If you live in a 9-1-1 service area, tell your child to call 9-1-1. Even very young children can be taught how and when to call for emergency assistance. If your child can't read, download the .pdf file of this publication which has a chart with pictures that may help them identify the correct number to call in the event of an emergency.
  • Help your child memorize important family information. Children should memorize their family name, address and phone number. They should also know where to meet in case of an emergency. Some children may not be old enough to memorize the information. They could carry a small index card that lists emergency information to give to an adult or babysitter.

After the Disaster: Time for Recovery

Immediately after the disaster, try to reduce your child's fear and anxiety.

  • Keep the family together. While you look for housing and assistance, you may want to leave your children with relatives or friends. Instead, keep the family together as much as possible and make children a part of what you are doing to get the family back on its feet. Children get anxious, and they'll worry that their parents won't return.
  • Calmly and firmly explain the situation. As best as you can, tell children what you know about the disaster. Explain what will happen next. For example, say, "Tonight, we will all stay together in the shelter." Get down to the child's eye level and talk to them.
  • Encourage children to talk. Let children talk about the disaster and ask questions as much as they want. Encourage children to describe what they're feeling. Listen to what they say. If possible, include the entire family in the discussion.
  • Include children in recovery activities. Give children chores that are their responsibility. This will help children feel they are part of the recovery. Having a task will help them understand that everything will be all right.

You can help children cope by understanding what causes their anxieties and fears. Reassure them with firmness and love. Your children will realize that life will eventually return to normal. If a child does not respond to the above suggestions, seek help from a mental health specialist or a member of the clergy.

Meeting the Child's Emotional Needs

  • Hug and touch your children.
  • Calmly and firmly provide factual information about the recent disaster.
  • Encourage your children to talk about their feelings. Be honest about your own.
  • Spend extra time with your children at bedtime.
  • Re-establish a schedule for work, play, meals and rest.
  • Involve your children by giving them specific chores to help them feel they are helping to restore family and community life.
  • Encourage your children to help develop a family disaster plan.
  • Make sure your children know what to do when they hear smoke detectors, fire alarms, and local community warning systems such as horns or sirens.
  • Praise and recognize responsible behavior.
  • Understand that your children will need to mourn their own losses.

Source: FEMA and the American Red Cross, FEMA L-196 Feb 93 ARC 4499 and FEMA L 196 ARC 4499 Revised Mar 98

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Cumberland County, NC.
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