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A primary school in Port-au-Prince

A disaster is a big and very frightening event – and when something is scary enough to leave adults feeling shaken, it can be terrifying for kids.

Fortunately, children who get support, communication and reassurance from their parents and from other concerned adults in a disaster’s aftermath can come to understand and accept the event and move forward with a minimum of emotional baggage.

Here is some information about how children feel and act after a disaster and what parents and other concerned adults can do to help kids make it through a very tough time with a minimum of harm.

Some kids, unfortunately, will develop PTSD and other disorders from their experience, and so it’s important that parents also know how to recognize the signs and symptoms of PTSD and to know how and when to get help with the emergence of warning signs.

How Children Feel After a Disaster

A natural disaster is a big and very frightening event for a child. Children may see or experience death and destruction, they may get hurt or see others hurt, may lose their home and possessions and they may even lose people known or close to them. It’s natural for children to harbor fears after such an event, but it’s up to parents to help children manage and work through those fears in ways that won’t hinder future development.

Although if you’ve been through a disaster you are likely dealing with a lot already, you can help your child immensely with your extra understanding of their fears, and your patience and time during this initial period after the event.

Some of the primary fears children may have immediately after the event include:

  • Worrying about a reoccurrence of the disaster
  • Worrying that someone they care about will be hurt or will die
  • Worrying about getting separated from their loved ones and left alone

It’s important to communicate honestly with you children in language they can understand to reassure them about their future safety and the safety of the family.1

How Children May Act After a Disaster

How children act after a disaster depends on their age and developmental stage, and how intensely affected they were by the disaster.

Some common reactions to disasters by age include:2

  • Preschool age – reverting to earlier developmental stage acts, such as thumb sucking or wetting the bed; clinging to parents and fearing outsiders or monsters, behavioral changes, a preoccupation with talking about the disaster
  • Elementary age – regressing to earlier stage behaviors, withdrawing from friends, having trouble concentrating in school (or not wanting to go to school) behaving aggressively, clinging to family
  • Adolescence – adolescents may not verbalize the extent of their worry but may show behavioral signs, such as a decline in school performance, aggressive or delinquent behavior, aches and pain without physical causes, sleeping problems, substance use or abuse.

Warning Signs of Childhood PTSD

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the signs and symptoms of childhood post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may arise soon after a disaster, but parents should also be aware the symptoms may not emerge until months or even years after the fact.

Children who lose a close friend or a family member during a disaster, who see a lot of carnage or who have their homes damaged or destroyed are at greater risk to experience PTSD,

Some of the warning signs of childhood PTSD include:

  • Social withdrawal, lethargy, feelings of sadness and a focus on the disaster
  • Aches and pains without physical cause (stomach ache, headache)
  • Irritability and an inability to focus
  • Lasting fears about the disaster, such as fears of separation
  • Separation anxiety, and excessively clinging behavior with family – not wanting to leave the family to go to school
  • Sleeping problems that last for more than a few days after the event (nightmares, bedwetting, night terrors)
  • Seeming jumpy or is easily startled
  • Sudden negative changes in behavior

Children with PTSD need professional treatment.

What Parents Can Do to Help

Some of the ways that parents can help kids cope through the initial period after a disaster include:

  • Try to limit your own expressions of fear and panic. Kids look to adults as emotional barometers, and if you show panic – they’ll feel panicked too. Additionally, be careful of what you say to other adults while kids may be listening – even innocuous comments can get misinterpreted by younger children and cause fear and anxiety.
  • Try to maintain ‘normal’ routines as well as you can – kids find comfort in the stability of routine
  • Don’t let your children become overwhelmed by news coverage of the event – try to limit and regulate what they view. They’ve got enough on their own plate without worrying about more than their own surroundings.
  • Talk to you children honestly about what happened, why it happened and importantly, what you’re doing to keep the whole family as safe as you can. Make sure to use language they can understand when doing so.
  • Teach your child what to do in the event of further dangers. Make sure they know where/how to get help if needed
  • Make sure your children get enough to eat and drink and enough sleep each night
  • Maintain expectations of behavior and family rules
  • Try to replace a few much loved toys as quickly as you can
  • Show them that there is hope and point out community rebuilding efforts.
  • Be patient and spend as much time as you can with your children
  • Encourage children to share their thoughts, worries and ideas about the disaster and the recovery
  • Encourage children to participate in the rebuilding by assigning an appropriate recovery task

Getting Trauma Therapy for Children after a Disaster

Children that continue to have serious reactions to the disaster for more than 6 weeks following the event or those that show signs of PTSD may need professional help to move past the event.

Trauma therapy for kids typically means cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which is a fast acting therapy that gives kids the tools they need to start feeling a lot better about the past and future.

References
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Page last updated Aug 05, 2010

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External Links
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Offers a good overview of a child's response to a disaster, and includes a downloadable PDF guide
Parent Guidelines for Helping Children after an Earthquake A PDF guide by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
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