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Helping a Child Adjust After a Disaster

After a disaster, children may have a difficult time coming to terms with what has happened. Learning the signs to look for and now to show extra care during this traumatic time.

Let’s face it, helping a child understand the effects of a major disaster is difficult and requires a great deal of patience. For the most part, children are not going to be able to process and adapt to the major changes as quickly as adults will. Experts say that in a situation where children are faced with too many changes in a given period, their sense of normalcy and security is disrupted, thus causing unwanted fear, anxiety and psychological distress. A child can also show signs of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Many people are impacted psychologically by an event. Understanding that a child will have a relatively difficult adjustment period compared to an adult will help parents or guardians prepare ahead of time for this situation as well as be more attentive to the child and their needs.

Children Will Be Looking To You For Support

After a disaster, children will be looking to parental figures for guidance on how to appropriately deal with the residual feelings following a disaster. While some children may have nightmares and be overly clingy, other children may simply withdrawal or possibly act out aggressively. The way a child reacts depends on the severity of the disaster the child went through, as well as the age group the child is in. Understanding the signals and watching a child closely for distress signs after the turmoil of a disaster can help a parent or guardian give the child what he or she needs to heal and move on.

According to the NASP, the way a child copes after a disaster depends on their age group:

  • Preschoolers – thumb sucking, bed wetting, clinging to parents, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, fear of the dark, regression in behavior, withdrawal from friends and routines.
  • Elementary School Children– irritability, aggressiveness, clinginess, nightmares, school avoidance, poor concentration, and withdrawal from activities and friends.
  • Adolescents – sleeping and eating disturbances, agitation, increase conflicts, physical complaints, delinquent behavior, and poor concentration.  In rare cases, adolescents who suffer from serious mental health problems, like PTSD or depression, may be at an increased risk for suicide.  If a child is exhibiting any of these symptoms, if possible, should be referred to a mental health professional for an evaluation.

The NASP also suggests that “it is important to acknowledge that although a given disaster may last for only a short period, survivors can be involved with the disaster aftermath for months or even years, especially if children had to leave their home,or start school in a different area that is away from everything they knew.  In attempts to reconstruct their lives following such a natural disaster, families are often required to deal with multiple people and agencies (e.g., insurance adjusters, contractors, electricians, roofers, the American Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Salvation Army.)”

For the most part, children need a state of normalcy.  An emphasis of safety must be emphasized if a child has symptoms of PTSD. For a list of symptoms, click here. The fact that they have a hard time understanding and adjusting to change can cause prolonged issues and long term effects. If the parents or guardians can find a way to give the child what they need when the symptoms of trauma first appear, then the adjustment period will not be as prolonged as it could be.

There are ways that parents or guardians can work with the child to help them come to terms with what they experienced.

  • Look for signs of children and adolescents who are not adjusting well.  PTSD can start out early on after a disaster, but can have long term effects if a person does not deal with it.  If a child is having symptoms of PTSD, start finding ways to help that child adjust to what has happened.
  • Teach proper coping skills and strategies that are appropriate to their age group.  Encouraging children to talk about their experience promotes healing, and will also bond the family together even more. If children are unable to verbalize their experience, parents can suggest having the child draw their experience, or journal their experience or play out the experience. If the child is still not adjusting well and symptoms are still present or becoming more severe, seek out a professional (if possible) to help the child.
  • Encourage supportive relationships within the familial system. Help children and adolescents understand the disaster event that they experienced. If immediate help is given to children with PTSD, then the child or adolescent has the mental tools available to deal with what has happened, and help them move on from the ordeal.

The American Red Cross has created a child centered online learning place for families to learn about disasters, help children deal with the aftermath of a disaster and learn to be safe.  This would be a great learning tool for families to do together.

This article was originally published at Ready Nutrition™ on March 8th, 2010