When disaster strikes we’re all effected. The Gulf and East Coast are stricken by hurricanes, the Midwest has their tornadoes, and the West Coast has fires and floods. The media makes sure we know about all of it, all the time. Also important are the individual crises a family can experience, e.g., a house fire, sudden loss, exposure to violence. These all create stress, and sometimes trauma. How can we help children and teens when they are directly effected by the crisis, or when they’re watching it on the TV, and hearing people talking about the disaster?Create and maintain as much predictability as possible. How much and what type will depend on how much trauma was created by the event, or how fearful a child becomes knowing about the disasters that occur. Do eliminate the constant replay of disasters by the media.
Take the scenario of having to live in a shelter, or with other family for a week. It is possible to create structure by making a little schedule (e.g., when you take a walk, when you play cards, naps). Daily structure, noting schedules, and lists, help the brain reorganize after a crises, and the predictability helps provide a sense of safety. These help mitigate the effects of trauma to the brain, and increase coping skills. Most adults do this naturally through mental or written lists, and they tend to talk about work and home life so, there again, they’re talking about what is happening and what comes next.
After a crisis adults take stock of what they have, what they need, and what they need to do, but we tend to not to help kids do the same. Common misconceptions about dealing with children after a crisis are: it’s bad to have them talk about it; they don’t have the same understand of loss of things (e.g., What do they really care about a dresser, except their things in it?); they “know” everything is “safe” once the crises is over because we tell them so; that if they knew their own schedule before they will after the crisis; and that they are resilient and won’t be effected as much as adults.
On the contrary, children and teens, need to talk about what happened, what they felt and what they think. Some don’t need to say much more then a few words, while others need to do a thorough review of what happened. They need help sorting out their feelings, and understand the reality of things (“No, we’re not going to float away, lets look at the house foundation.”). If talking about a crisis, however, triggers a traumatic reaction, get professional help. A traumatic response to recalling an experience may include hyper ventilating, screaming, tantrums, refusal to sleep in own bed, has to have the light on (many months after the crisis), chronic nightmares, excessive clinginess (many months after), bed wetting, a sudden drop in grades, or withdrawal or new shyness, to name a few. For more information on symptoms of trauma visit Recognizing Symptoms of Child Trauma.
Set schedules for things you normally do not. For example, posting a weekly schedule of activities and appointments, or one about school projects. Posting a weekly menu can give a sense of structure. Then, periodically review the schedule and chat about it for a second. This also provides another good moment to connect with the child.
If possessions were lost, talk to the child and help them take stock of what is missing. If everything is lost, talking about the heartfelt possessions, and other items, is very important. One might say to their child, “The stuffed animals (names some) were such good friends, we’ll miss them, they were….)”; and to their teen, “All that hard work you put into your play list, that’s as much a loss as your ipod, huh?). We all know that material things are not as important as people and pets, but they do matter. When we lose something of value to us, we should acknowledge the loss. There seems to be some confusion that if we feel bad over losing possessions we’re materialistic, or we need to “get over it”. That is hard for children since they’re new to crises and disasters, trauma, and loss. They don’t yet know things will get better.
If there is trauma, or a lot of stress, over a situation, then review the days activities in the morning. For example, for young children you might say “OK, we’re going to finish breakfast, I’ll drive you to school, what classes do you have today?, dad will pick you up at what time?”. Then maybe talk about a good class for a minute. At night, especially if there is some fear about going to sleep, you might say something like, “You’re going to sleep, then wake up, we’ll have breakfast, and so forth.).
Bad things happen in life. We can not control natural disasters, or avoid all personal crises, but we can have an impact on how these things effect children. We can’t promise our children we’ll never let anything happen to them. We can promise we will care for them, protect them, and teach them, the best we can. And when a crises dose happen we can be armed with information, know what to expect, teach them coping skills, and help them feel safe again.
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