Shootings. Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Floods and now a pandemic. These events are disturbing enough for adults, but can be traumatizing for children if they are not treated with special care. When disaster strikes, a child's daily routine disappears, leaving many feeling 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's important to recognize not only these reactions, but also help children cope with their emotions.
You are their biggest influence. When you can manage your own feelings, you can make disasters less traumatic for your kids. Once the danger has passed, concentrate on your child's emotional needs by asking the child what's uppermost in his or her mind.
• Encourage dialogue. Listen to your kids. Ask them about their feelings. Validate their concerns.
• Answer questions. Give the amount of information you feel your child needs. Typically, children fear that the event will happen again, that they will be separated from their family or that someone will be hurt, so clarify any misunderstandings they may have about risk and danger. 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.
• Be calm, be reassuring. Discuss safety plans. Having children participate in the family's recovery activities will help them feel that their life will return to "normal."
• Shut off the TV. Repeated images may lead younger kids to believe the event is recurring. If your children do watch TV or use the Internet, be with them to talk and answer questions.
• 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.
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.
Federal Emergency Management Agency and Gottman Institute. Edited by Greg Kelly.
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