Thursday, April 28, 2011

Responding to Kids/Teen After a Disaster

May 3 is National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day.** This year, the national theme will focus on building resilience in young children dealing with trauma. Read our recent article on resilience in children here.

In the wake of the tragedies across Alabama last week, we'd like to continue to share our post from Thursday that offered some ideas on how best to help those around you.

First you must make sure your children's basic needs are met They need to know they are safe, will have food to eat and have a roof over their heads. Once those needs are met, then you can focus on helping them cope. Neither children nor adults can cope until those basic needs are met.

Secondly, remember kids and teenagers are resilient. (Read more about resiliency here) But, when disaster strikes it could be difficult for them to navigate the waters back to normal functioning. All kids and teens will react differently. Their reactions will depend on the level of exposure to the actual event, level of personal loss or injury, level of parental support, dislocation from their home or community, and preexisting risk factors such as previous traumas. No matter what their level of response, children and teens need adults in their lives who make them feel safe and okay. Whether you are a parent, friend, teacher, pastor, children's minister or shelter worker, you have the ability to instill resiliency in a child's life.

Listed below are some ideas of how best to respond to children and teens after a disaster:

Acknowledge their feelings - Children need for you to empathize with them and listen to what they are saying. Don't dismiss them, thinking that this did not affect them because they are young. They need to know that what they are feeling is normal and that they will feel better. Continue to tell them their feelings are normal and let them know what else they might expect to feel.

Talk about the event - Whether we are talking about it or not, kids know what is going on. Talk to them about the events that have happened in an age-appropriate way. Dr. Alan Wolfelt says, "If children are old enough to love, they are old enough to grieve."

Remain Calm - Remember that your kids will take their cues from you. Admit to your child how you are feeling, but reassure them that you and they will be okay. When you talk about your feelings, it will give them permission to talk about theirs. Make sure you are taking care of yourself too, so that you can remain calm while talking.

Routine, Routine, Routine - When disasters strike, kids need routine. Try as best as possible to return to your normal life. If that is not possible, try to create a new normal. Kids need to feel safe and okay. Kids feel safest when the same boundaries are in place that were there before the storm. Encourage kids to play or schedule time with friends if possible. Children often cope through repetitive play or by acting out the events they have seen. This is normal and healthy for children.

Encourage Them to Cope - You can help facilitate their ability to cope by using both verbal and non-verbal avenues. Have a child draw out what they are feeling or they saw. You can also have a child act out the events. Some children will want to talk about it over and over or ask multiple questions. Keep supporting and talking. You don't have to have the answers, but being available to your child will make all the difference.

What has worked before - There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Talk to your children about what has worked for them in the past when they have been upset. Children and teens have coping skills. Sometimes they just need to be reminded of what they are.

If you are still concerned for your child a few days after the event, be on the look out for the symptoms below or major changes in your child's behavior:
  • Refusal to return to school and "clinging" behavior, including shadowing the mother or father around the house
  • Persistent fears related to the catastrophe (such as fears about being permanently separated from parents)
  • Sleep disturbances such as nightmares, screaming during sleep and bedwetting, all persisting more than several days after the event
  • Loss of concentration and irritability
  • Jumpiness or being startled easily
  • Behavior problems, for example, misbehaving in school or at home in ways that are not typical for the child
  • Physical complaints (stomachaches, headaches, dizziness) for which a physical cause cannot be found
  • Withdrawal from family and friends, sadness, listlessness, decreased activity, and preoccupation with the events of the disaster***
If your child or teen is exhibiting these behaviors and you are concerned about them, contact your pediatrician or a counselor. We will be happy to work with you and your family as best we can as well. Feel free to give us a call if you have more questions: 1-866-991-6864.

*This column is not intended to substitute for an actual session with a licensed counselor.

If you have a question you would like to ask, EMAIL US:
or leave a comment. We would love to answer one of your questions.

As found on their website,, National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day is a key strategy of "Caring for Every Child's Mental Health." This is part of the Public Awareness and Support Strategic Initiative by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. The effort seeks to raise awareness about the importance of children's mental health and that positive mental health is essential to a child's healthy development from birth. For more information about National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day, click here.


No comments:

Post a Comment