Coping with Children’s Reactions to Tragedy and Disaster
Safe Schools Hotline 858.668.4161
Fear and Anxiety
- Fear is a normal reaction to any danger that threatens one’s life or well being.
- What are children afraid of after a disaster?
- They are afraid of recurrence, or injury, or death.
- They are afraid of being separated from their family.
- They are afraid of being left alone.
- One must recognize that children who are afraid are very frightened human beings!
- A first step for parents is to understand the kinds of fears and anxieties children experience.
Advice to Parents
- It is of great importance for the family to remain together.
- Children need reassurance by their parents’ words as well as by their actions.
- Listen to what children tell you about their fears.
- Listen when they tell you about how they feel and what they think of what has happened, and validate them.
- Explain the disaster and the known facts to the children; listen to them.
- Encourage them to talk.
- Children’s fears do not need to completely disrupt their own and the family’s activities.
- Communicate and work cooperatively with the crisis team at your children’s school.
- Parents should indicate to the children that they are maintaining control; they should be understanding but firm, be supportive, and make decisions for the children.
- Bedtime problems:
- Children may refuse to go to their room to sleep by themselves.
- When they do go to bed, they may have difficulty falling asleep.
- They may wake up often during the night; they may have nightmares.
- It is natural for children to want to be close to their parents and for parents to want to have their children near them.
- Parents should also be aware of their own fears, their own uncertainty, and of the effect these have upon children.
- Children may demonstrate regressive behavior such as:
- Clinging to parents
- Thumb sucking
- Children respond to praise; parents should make a deliberate effort not to focus on the child’s immature behavior.
- Specific fears:
- Refusal to go to school
- Fear of the dark
- Fear of going to bed
- Fear of “monsters”
How Can Parents Recognize When to Seek Professional Help?
- If a sleeping problem continues for more than a few weeks, if the clinging behavior does not diminish, or if the fears become worse, it is time to ask for professional advice.
- Mental health professionals are specifically trained to help people in distress. They can help parents cope with and understand the unusual reactions of the child. By talking to the parents and child, either individually or in a group, a therapist can help a child overcome his fears more easily.
- By working with the student assistance team at their child’s school, parents can gain access to resources and obtain recommendations.
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
- Recognize and acknowledge your own feelings of loss and grief.
- Talk to someone you trust about your feelings.
- Be realistic about what you can do. Allow yourself to receive support from others.
- Stick to a schedule as much as you can. Familiar routine provides stability and comfort when feelings are out of control.
- Be kind to yourself. You don’t have to “get it together” right away. You don’t have to do it all, be strong for everyone, or take care of everything. Treat yourself with the same gentleness and understanding you would anybody else.