Domestic violence, fires, motor vehicle accidents, rapes, terrorism, war. When disasters of this caliber affect your family, it is especially crucial to help children cope with the trauma. Here is some helpful advice:
- Age Appropriate: Individualize responses to each child according to age. An adolescent can cope by being involved with a peer group— scouts, candy stripers, etc.— but a younger child will need more individual attention. Avoid technical terms a young child would not understand, but talk more maturely with teenagers or they will feel they are being patronized.
- Balance: “Everything in moderation” is a good rule. It’s okay for an older child or adolescent to watch television news or programs about the disaster, but put a limit on the amount of time watched. Watch the news with your child and discuss it.
- Care for Yourself: A child’s distress level mirrors his or her parents’. By getting your stress under control, you serve as a model for your child’s behavior.
- Facilities: Adults have abilities that children may not have. Therefore, a major parenting role is to provide what is necessary for your child to cope. If your child wants to raise funds for disaster victims, make it a family project so you can guide it along.
- Gifts: Even though parents regularly give to their children, this is an especially significant time to go on a special day trip or take your child to see a movie he or she has been begging to see.
- Hugging and Holding: No explanation needed!
- Normal Reactions: Most regressive reactions are natural and temporary. A toddler may return to thumb sucking or lose bladder and/or bowel control even after being toilet trained. A latency age child (6-11) may bedwet or cling excessively. An adolescent may withdraw or become irritable. Avoid overreacting to or punishing a child for these behaviors. Instead “normalize” the situation by reassuring your child that his or her behavior, thoughts and feelings are natural.
- Observe: Watch a child’s behavior to detect warning signs of difficulty. Intense and persistent reactions or drug and alcohol use should be professionally evaluated by a health or mental health professional.
- Questions and Respect: Encourage children to ask questions. Do not bar questions or change the topic. Always be available and listen, listen, listen!
- Routine and Ritual: Maintain regular routines and schedules as much as possible. Continue to observe birthday celebrations, annual barbecues or regular observances.
- Talking and Truth: Talk to children truthfully. Use the opportunity of a disaster to teach about life’s truths. When your child is older, there is no way to constantly guard or rescue him or her. You can only hope that your children will use what you have taught them to protect themselves.
- Avoid automatically uttering statements that may not be true. For example, “There is nothing to worry about” is a lie if there is something to worry about. Children can often sense that there is something wrong or that their parents are upset. They just might not know what it is about. It will only distress a child to be falsely reassured. Children may also learn from another source what is being withheld from them at home. It is better to learn the truth from a parent who can be emotionally supportive and give proper guidance.
- Exercise: Physical activity breaks the tension. Regular exercise promotes a sound mind in a sound body. A parent and child can also engage in exercise together by bike riding, walking, playing catch, etc.
Choose the most natural and comfortable responses when helping a child. Most of these suggestions are effective any time after a disaster and can be used in other stages of a child’s life as well. Always remember that your unwavering support is necessary to a child’s emotional well being.