How to help children cope with disasters?
Kerala is witnessing one of the worst times in its history. Life has been turned upside down, havoc everywhere around. The experience is frightening for children and adults alike. Adults understand the nature’s call and though scared but know that there is very little they can do about this.
While adults get busy tackling the need of the hour, managing the damage and the disaster and reaching out for basic amenities and their minds get full thinking and deciding what to do next and how to cope up with the damage, children’s sense of security and normalcy gets effected.
Children look to the significant adults in their lives for guidance on how to manage their reactions after the immediate threat is over. Parents, teachers, and other caregivers can help children and youth cope in the aftermath of a natural disaster by remaining calm and reassuring children that they will be all right.
Immediate response efforts should emphasize teaching effective coping strategies, fostering supportive relationships, and helping children understand their reactions. Schools can help play an important role in this process by providing a stable and familiar environment.
Through the support of caring adults school personnel can help children return to normal activities and routines (to the extent possible) and provide an opportunity to transform a frightening event into a learning experience.
The severity of children’s reactions will depend on their specific risk factors. These include exposure to the actual event, personal injury or loss of a loved one, level of parental support, dislocation from their home or community, the level of physical destruction, and pre-existing risks, such as a previous traumatic experience or mental illness.
Adults should contact a professional, if children exhibit significant changes in behavior or any of the following symptoms over an extended period of time.
- Preschoolers - thumb sucking, bedwetting, clinging to parents, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, fear of the dark, regression in behavior, and withdrawal from friends and routines!"
- Elementary School Children - irritability, aggressiveness, clinginess, nightmares, school avoidance, poor concentration, and withdrawal from activities and friends!"
- Adolescents - sleeping and eating disturbances, agitation, increase in conflicts, physical complaints, delinquent behavior, and poor concentration.
A minority of children may be at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms can include those listed above as well as re-experiencing the disaster during play and/or dreams; anticipating or feeling that the disaster is happening again; avoiding reminders of the disaster; general numbness to emotional topics; and increased arousal symptoms such as inability to concentrate and startle reactions.
Although rare, some adolescents may also be at increased risk of suicide if they suffer from serious mental health problems like PTSD or depression. Again, adults should seek professional mental health help for children exhibiting these symptoms.
Immediately following a natural disaster, parents and teachers can:
- Remain calm and reassuring. Children take their cues from you, especially young children. Acknowledge the loss or destruction, but emphasize the community’s efforts to cleanup and rebuild. To the extent it is possible to do so, assure them that family and friends will take care of them and that life will return to normal.
- Acknowledge and normalize their feelings. Allow children to discuss their feelings and concerns, and address any questions they may have regarding the event.
- Listen and empathize. An empathetic listener is very important. Let them know that their reactions are normal and expected.
- Encourage children to talk about disaster-related events. Children need an opportunity to discuss their experiences in a safe, accepting environment.
- Provide activities that enable children to discuss their experiences. This may include a range of methods (both verbal and nonverbal) and incorporate varying projects (e.g., drawing, stories, music, drama, audio and video recording).
- Seek the help of the school psychologist, counselor, or social worker if you need help with ideas or managing the conversation.
- Promote positive coping and problem-solving skills. Activities should teach children how to apply problem-solving skills to disaster-related stressors.
- Encourage children to develop realistic and positive methods of coping that increase their ability to manage their anxiety and to identify which strategies fit with each situation.
- Emphasize children’s resiliency. Focus on their competencies. Help children identify what they have done in the past that helped them cope when they were frightened or upset.
- Bring their attention to other communities that have experienced natural disasters and recovered (e.g., Miami, FL and Charleston, SC).
- Strengthen children’s friendship and peer support. Children with strong emotional support from others are better able to cope with adversity.
Children’s relationships with peers can provide suggestions for how to cope and can help decrease isolation. In many disaster situations, friendships may be disrupted because of family relocations. In some cases, parents may be less available to provide support to their children because of their own distress and feelings of being overwhelmed.
(The author is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Learning Arena, an e-learning company)