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HELPING YOUR CHILD DEAL WITH NATURAL DISASTERS
stress, natural disasters, coping, children, adolescents
12/29/2004
Ernest J. Bordini, Ph.D. Clinical Psychology Associates of North Central Florida  352 336-2888
Helping Your Child Deal With Natural Disasters:

Ernest J. Bordini, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Clinical Psychology Associates of North Central Florida
CPANCF.COM (352) 336-2888

All rights reserved

There is no doubt we live in stressful times. Studies of the impact of the 9/11 terror attacks indicated there were long-term consequences in terms of stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms in many adults and children. Interestingly, this was true for many of us who collectively experienced the trauma indirectly through news reports, discussions with our neighbors and the media.

While there is some research that suggests the traumatic effects of natural disasters may be somewhat less than man-made tragedies or consequences of human acts, it is not unexpected that exposure through the media can have an impact on some individuals. Children, people already suffering from stress or anxiety, and those who have suffered recent or many significant losses maybe particularly vulnerable.

A review of Dr. Jamison’s article (our former associate, now practicing in Columbia, South Carolina) on childhood fears available on our CPANCF.COM website notes some important developmental considerations when considering the potential impact on children.

Dr. Jamison notes that starting at age two, children begin to understand cause and effect relationships and sense their lack of control in the world. They may develop some irrational fears of objects that seem unpredictable, loud noises, doctors, large approaching objects, and imaginary creatures. Between the ages of two and three, children start engaging in imaginative play. They may become fearful of imaginary situations or creatures they construct. Children’s imagination becomes even more active at ages three and four, which is a common age for more intense fears. They may fear the dark, scary, noises, masks, TV monsters, animals, being alone, and burglars.

A particular fear that is relevant as we watch news accounts with horror and sadness involves the separation of family members. Children between the ages of four and five sometimes have particular fears about losing the primary care giver. Dr. Jamison notes that this fear and the fear of darkness are common among five-year-olds. Typical fears at this age are fear of injury, fear of getting lost, fear of dogs, thunder, and losing parents. Common fears of the six and seven year olds are ghost, witches, wild animal, “ugly tone of voice”. Fears of natural disasters as well as parental loss or injury are seen in children at this age.

Dr. Jamison notes many children are able to resolve fears by age seven due their increasing cognitive and adaptive skills. Fears tend to lessen by age seven and are usually related to school, bodily injury, natural events, social anxiety, and performance anxiety.

Nightmares and strong fears are common prior to the age of 7 or 8 and become less frequent at later ages, though some brief recurrence after seeing a scary movie or when faced with traumatic events is not uncommon. Persisting nightmares or pervasive fears after the age of 7 should be brought to the attention of the child's pediatician or licensed psychologist experienced in diagnosing and treating childhood and adolescent disorders.

Stressful events often impact the family. Finding activities for children to distract them may seem a low priority when we as adults cope by continuing to soak in updates of the status or consequences of a disaster. However it is far easier to manage children by giving them something interesting to do than telling them what not to do. These events often provide modeling opportunities for good coping skills. Do problem solve, communicate, listen to input, provide reassurance as this is comforting for those even more helpless than ourselves.

Remember that children may feel even more helpless than we do and that if we as parents convey the message by words, action or even by our emotional tone that we don’t know what to do or are overwhelmed, their sense of support and safety becomes threatened. A soft, calm and reassuring tone, as well as firm direction can help reduce the sense of confusion and distress children may feel. Try to maintain their routines as much as practically possible but don’t sweat the small stuff.

Successful coping involves a return to our normal routines and health habits.

Exercise as well as distractions such as reading or watching a light or comical movie can help provide stress relief.

Taking walks and getting some fresh air in the morning if the sun peaks out can be restorative. Providing children pleasurable activities or treats for the family can help break a siege mentality and increasing levels of stress. Even going to a large mall, taking a brisk walk and enjoying a cup of coffee can help relieve some of the shut-in feeling and constant exposure to news updates.

The American Psychological Association has provided some guidelines for parents in dealing with stressful traumatic events such as the attacks of 9/11. These also can help in dealing with natural disasters.

For parents of elementary school children the following may help.

Avoid exposing your child to reminders of the trauma. This includes limiting your child's exposure to the news and other television programs about the tragedy. If you do choose to have your child see this information on the television, keep it brief, watch it with your child, and talk to your child after to clarify miscommunication. Protecting the children from re-exposure includes limiting exposure to adult conversations about the events - even when you think they are not listening, they often are.

Maintain the family routines, particularly around sleeping, eating, and extracurricular activities (e.g., sports, church, dance). Be sure the bedtime routine includes safely tucking them in at night. Young children may want a night light again. Make sure your child is receiving a balanced diet and enough rest.

Avoid unnecessary separations from important caregivers.

There may be some temporary regression in your child's behaviors (e.g., starting to babytalk, wetting the bed). Do not panic, as your child is likely to return to previous functioning with time and support,

Provide soothing activities, such as reading books, listening to music, taking a walk, riding bikes, etc.

Increase patience with your child and with yourself. Give your family time to cope. Find ways to emphasize to the children that you love them.

Recommendations for parents of teens and high school students:

Most teens will deal with a distant disaster without excessive difficulty. If your teen is particularly overwhelmed or sensitive to recent events the following may be helpful.

Avoid exposing your teen to constant reminders of the trauma. This includes monitoring your teen's exposure to the news and other television programs about the tragedy. When you can, watch it with your teen, and talk to your teen after to clarify their understanding of the events and the images seen. Be aware that your teens are often listening when adults are discussing the events. Protect your teen from re-exposure includes limiting exposure to adult conversations, however, find time to include them in age appropriate discussions about the events and resulting thoughts and feelings.

Provide soothing activities, such as reading books, listening to music, taking a walk, riding bikes, etc. Some high school students benefit from writing their thoughts and feelings in a journal.

Address acting-out behavior involving aggression or self-destructive activities quickly and firmly with limit setting. If this behavior is severe or persists, seek professional help.

Increase patience with your teen and with yourself. Give your family time to cope. Find ways to emphasize to your teen that you love them.

Most children and teens will not exhibit more than some temporary increase in anxiety or fears and the above guidelines should help with younger children or children who may be more sensitive or anxious. Should disruptions in behavior, sleep, appetite, or increased fears and anxiety persist for more than two weeks consult with your pediatrician or a licensed psychologist who has experience with children and adolescents.
 
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