How To Help Our Children During Crisis
by Charlotte Reznick, Ph.D.
The emotional effects of a crisis or disaster, such as earthquakes, riots, and terrorist activities, on children can be tremendous. One of the difficulties experienced by parents is that they have not had adequate time to deal with their own reactions when they are called upon to deal with the impact of the disaster or crisis on their child.
Emotional reactions vary in nature and severity from child to child. Children’s reactions to a disaster are determined by their age, previous experiences, temperament and personality, and the immediacy of the disaster to their own lives. Nonetheless, some commonalties exist in how children feel when their lives are disrupted by a disaster. General reactions include feelings of loss of control and stability, self-centered concerns, and grief reactions (denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance).
Following a crisis, some children may:
Become more active and restless, or have difficulty concentrating.
Worry where they will live and what will happen to them (if homes have been damaged).
Become easily upset, crying and whining. OR
Be quiet and withdrawn, appear numb to their feelings, and not want to talk about the experience.
Feel neglected by parents who are busy trying to clean up and rebuild their lives.
Become afraid of loud noises, rain, storms, helicopters, etc.
Be angry. They may hit, throw, kick, to show their anger, often with little provocation.
Be afraid to be left alone or afraid to sleep alone. They may have nightmares and want to sleep with a parent or another person.
Behave as they did when younger. They may suck their thumb, wet the bed, ask for a bottle, and want to be held alot.
Re-experience the traumatic event through intense recollections, dreams, flashbacks or hallucinations.
Have symptoms of illness such as nausea, vomiting, headaches, fever, and poor appetite.
Refuse to go to school or to child care arrangements. The child may not want to be out of your sight.
Feel guilty that they caused the disaster because of some previous behavior.
Be afraid that the crisis may recur. They may ask many times: "Will it happen again?"
Not show any outward signs until weeks or months later.
You may notice several of these reactions in children immediately following a crisis or disaster. If you are a professional, these suggestions may be very useful in your work with parents. If you are a parent, try what seems appropriate and if reactions continue over numerous weeks, or seem extreme and more severe than other children, seek professional assistance. How Parents Can Help Their Children:
Talk to your children and provide simple, accurate information to questions. Allow them to tell and draw their stories about what happened.
Talk with your children about your own feelings.
Listen to what your children say and how they say it. Try to recognize the underlying feelings in their words and their actions. For example: "It makes us mad to think about all the people and homes that were hurt by this riot" or "I can see you are feeling really sad about what happened". This helps both you and the children clarify feelings.
Reassure your child: "We are together." "We care about you." "We will take care of you."
Be honest. Don’t deny the seriousness of the situation. Saying to a child: "Don’t cry, everything will be okay" does not reflect how the child feels and the child knows that, at least in the immediate future, this is not true.
Respond to repeated questions. You may need to repeat information and reassurances many times.
Hold your child, providing comfort. Touching is especially important for children during this period.
Spend extra time with your child and when putting him/her to bed. Talk and offer assurance. Leave night light on if necessary.
Observe your child at play. Listen to what is said and how she/he plays. Frequently children express feelings of fear or anger while playing with dolls, trucks, or friends.
Provide play, art, and journal writing experiences to relieve tension. Use relaxation techniques and positive imagery to help heal and create a vision for the future.
Plan something practical that your child can do to help (help clean up or make sandwiches for others who are working or hungry; write a poem or draw a picture memorializing a person who may have died).
Expect that resolving all of the feelings related to the disaster may take your child (and you) quite awhile. It is normal for a child to bring up the crisis long after it has happened and when you least expect it.
Please feel free to contact me for further information or assistance.
Originally published in:
The Brentwood News, February 1994
Under the title of "Post-Earthquake: How To Help Our Children Now"