Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FS702 | January 2014
When children witness violent events, directly or on television, they become frightened and confused. This is normal. Disasters can strike quickly without any warning. They take many forms. Disasters may be:
The emotional impact of a disaster on children and adults can be tremendous. Children look to parents and other adults for help. The way adults react to an emergency gives children a pattern to copy. If adults react with alarm or fear, children likely will be more upset. They can sense the tension in those around them. Children's reactions depend on the amount of disasters they have witnessed and the closeness of the disaster to their own lives. A child's age also affects how they respond to a catastrophe. At different ages parents should look for behavior changes like this that may be triggered by a disaster:
One of the challenges for parents is that they often must deal with their children's reactions and fears when they have not had time to deal with their own reactions to the disaster. Parents should take care of themselves, even if it is a little at a time, so they will be able to take care of their children.
According to the American Red Cross, after a disaster children are most afraid that:
Parents should be alert to these changes in a child's behavior. Some children may not show evidence of being upset until weeks or months later.
Parents and other adults must offer reassurance and emotional support to children of all ages. To help children cope, adults must give children a chance to talk rather than avoid discussing the topic. Be honest and open. Children are fearful when they do not understand what is happening around them. Encourage children to express their feelings through speaking, drawing, or play. Provide them with comfort and repeated reassurance.
These are some steps that can help let children know that parents will take care of them:
When a disaster strikes an entire community, school personnel can play a major part in the recovery and healing process for children. School administrators and teachers can lend support by giving students time to talk about the traumatic events and how they feel; not trying to rush back to school routines too quickly; holding meetings and counseling sessions for parents to discuss the events, their feelings and ways to help their children; offering art and play therapy for young children in school; holding in-school sessions with entire classes or individuals; and bringing mental health professionals into the school for these activities. The school can be a positive environment to bring families together during a time of adversity.
When children suffer trauma from disasters or violence, early intervention is critical. Parents, professionals, and other adults need to provide comfort, stability, and support as soon as possible. It is important that children know you are there to take care of them. For more information call your local mental health provider or call Mental Health America at 1-800-969-NMHA (6642).
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