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Helping Children After a Disaster

Yvonne Clark

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When explaining a catastrophe to kids, it is important to explain the event in words the child can understand. Parents, caregiver and adults should acknowledge the frightening parts of the disaster when talking with a child about it. Be honest, falsely minimizing the devastation will not end a child's concerns. The parent, caregiver, teacher or support leader should answer the child's questions as best they can. I do not know is an acceptable answer.

A parent's reaction to a devastation and loss will determine how a child might react. Most of the time children are aware of their parent's worries, but they are particularly sensitive during a crisis. Children will read emotions around them and overhear conversations. Parents should admit their concerns to their children, and stress the parent's abilities to cope with the disaster.

A child's age will have an effect on how they respond to the disaster. For example a six-year old may show their worries by refusing to attend school, younger child may experience emotional outbursts, whereas teens may minimize their concerns, but argue more with parents and show a decline in school performance.

Following a disaster or traumatic situation children may develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, which is psychological damage that can result from experiencing, witnessing, or participating in an overwhelmingly traumatic (frightening) event.

There are some apparent signs that a child may have developed Posttraumatic Stress Disorder that parents, caregivers, teachers and other adults should be alert:

  • Changes in the child's behavior
  • Refusal to return to and/or go to school
  • “Clinging" behavior
  • Shadowing- following mother or father around the house
  • Separation Anxiety
  • Persistent fears related to the disaster- such as fears about being permanently separated from parents
  • Sleep disturbances- such as nightmares, screaming during sleep, and bedwetting
  • Physical complaints- stomachaches, headaches, dizziness; a physical cause cannot be found
  • Loss of concentration and irritability

    Children that experienced devastation or some traumatic event should be allowed to grieve. Grief relates to loss and separation. Maybe a youth and his or her family have been relocated, new home. Alternatively, they are not in a home, but still living under temporary conditions. A new school, loss of family and/or extended family members, and loss friendships because of devastation can have grief attached.

    A disastrous event flood, fire, hurricane, earthquake, airplane crash can shatter a child's assumptions of how life is supposed to be. The sense of order and control children saw in his or her life is gone; suddenly the world seems like a sad, frightening, unpredictable place.

    We can help children grieving from the loss of devastation and disaster by encourage the child to talk, but we must listen. Sometimes there is no need for adults to say anything, just listen. To help kids face the reality of their emotional distress parents, caregivers, teachers and other supportive adults should acknowledge the young person's pain. Undeniably, validate the adjustment to a new environment in which the child and his or her family is a part of without familiar things from the past.

    As you encourage the traumatized youth to talk, start your time of sharing with something like; tell me what happened if you feel like talking, then be willing to hear the details. The child may want to tell the same story or part of the story repeatedly for a while. Encourage journal writing for older kids whereas, young children can express themselves by drawing. We do not want to criticize the child's reactions or minimize the trauma by saying, “it could have been worse" because nothing feels worse than what he or she is experiencing.

    Yvonne Butler Clark


    It's Okay to Cry, Inc.

    4706 Brownstone Lane

    Houston, TX 77053

    713 433-6059

    Visit us at for additional grief support books and dvd

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