We have seen it again — community disaster. Events such as the recent hurricanes and the Las Vegas massacre can be traumatic for children and adults and time is needed to process it.
Children often experience violence different than adults, and they must have developmentally appropriate language when trying to explain it.
According to Kansas State Research and Extension, children can experience the effects for months and years after the event. Some will express their feelings outwardly through behaviors, and other will focus internally on their thoughts and emotions. Typically it is the boys who act out physically or misbehave, and girls will hold things in.
However, children of either gender can exhibit one or a mix of these behaviors. Neither response is more ‘right’ than the other.
Other ways a child may react are:
May find it difficult to sleep, have nightmares and even daydream about the disaster.
Often display physical effects of the disaster in the form of headaches, indigestion, stomach aches and fatigue. These are very real effects on the child.
Infants are not immune to the tension around them. Comforting a crying infant and remaining calm can ease the baby’s trauma.
School performance may decline. This is reflected in grade performance, decreased the ability to focus, unruliness and even rudeness to peers and adults.
Young children are likely to act out the events as if in a play. They may use dolls or toys to play the parts of people or things and they may even be violent with them.
Young children may cope with giving the disaster a human personality. For example, a child might think of a tornado as an evil spirit and this is upsetting to them.
Children’s moods such as sadness, anger or anxiety can be easily triggered. Children may mask their emotions as a way of being ‘strong’ for other family members.
Older children can experience deep depression.
Each child’s response to a disaster depends on multiple factors, including:
The event in which the disaster directly affects them.
What they witnessed happening to other people during the disaster.
Their level of exposure to news media and online video coverage of the disaster.
The extent to which they were in a functional family before the disaster.
Previous or resulting education or preparation about how to cope with stress.
Adults may struggle to figure out what to say when disasters occur.
Reassure the child that you are still together and you will be there to help as long as you can.
Return to pre-disaster routines as quickly as possible. Bedtime, bath time, meal time and waking up times should be restored. Regular daily routines help children feel more secure and safe.
Take care of yourself. If you don’t cope well, the child knows this. Make sure you are not lashing out, quick to anger, or sad and withdrawn.
Talk to your child about your feelings. Let him or her know that you are getting better, too, but you may be sad or upset sometimes because the events were hard on you.
Let children know their feelings are “okay.” Validating their sometimes hard to understand feelings of anger and sadness provides children with meaningful support.
Hold and comfort the child. Parents can provide this more readily than teachers, but children can find comfort in the arms of grandparents and other relatives. There is no substitute for the warmth, protection, and feeling of safety experienced in the arms of loved ones.
When possible, help others. Volunteer, send food, send encouraging letters, donate toys.
Encourage children to draw, write or tell stories about their experiences. Talking about how the disaster has changed them can be beneficial. Children in groups, such as in the classroom or after-school settings, can also benefit from knowing others feel the same way.
Things to remember: Children and adults experience and adjust to disasters in a variety of ways. It is everyone’s ‘job’ to recognize this, help children, and take care of children and themselves in the aftermath of traumatic events. While the passage of time can help, there is no substitute for patient, caring, honest, and supportive adults helping children who are recovering from traumatic events in their lives.