Support in the home environment
First, it is important to know that a child can usually sense when a parent is worried or afraid. If at all possible, after a disaster or attack that is close to home, try to maintain a calm, relaxed environment for your child. It is important to reassure the child that you are doing everything you can to keep your home and them safe. Also, you can explain to the child that the community is making their school and other businesses in the community safe as well (Department of Education, 2005). If it is not possible to maintain a relaxed environment, it is important to explain to the child what you are feeling and why. Even if they cannot tell you are worried, it is still very important to express to them what you are feeling to keep communication lines open.
When talking to your child, it is important to tell the truth about what has happened, but do not scare your child more than they already are. Find out what fears your child has and talk about it. You may be able to explain to your child that some of their fears will not occur (example: South Dakota will not experience a hurricane). Make sure to use words that they can understand. Your reassurances need to be developmentally appropriate. It is important to listen to your child's questions and answer them honestly, even if they ask the same question more than once. This may serve as a form of reassurance to the child that they are safe. Let your child know that their questions and reactions are important to you.
If your child does not want to talk about the event, do not force him or her to – they may need to express his or her fears in other ways. You can suggest that they draw pictures, play with toys, or write stories or poems that can be directly or indirectly related to current events (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2003).
Developmental issues and traumatic events
Children will react to crisis situations differently depending on their age. Preschool age children have not had the chance to develop their own coping skills yet – therefore, they will depend on their caregivers to help them through the stress. You may see that your child starts doing activities that they did years ago; that is, they may have regressed in their behavior. This could include sucking their thumbs, becoming afraid of certain things, or wetting the bed. They also may change their eating and sleeping behaviors or may act out by becoming disobedient or hyperactive. Aggressive behavior may surface that is not typical or they can also withdraw from things that they usually enjoy doing. Your preschooler may always exaggerate when they talk about the event and like talking about it over and over.
Children who are ages 5 to 11 may react much like younger children. You may see them withdrawing from normal activities or ceasing to spend time with their friends. Children at this age may also compete for attention after a disaster and not want to go to school because of their fear. Their school performance may deteriorate. They can have concentration issues and become more aggressive than normal. They also may return to childish behaviors, such as asking for help with feeding or dressing.
Younger adolescents often suffer from physical discomfort when under increased stress. They may choose not to do their chores, homework or other responsibilities given to them that they handled before the event. They may compete for attention from their parents or teachers, but might also withdraw from friends or hobbies, resist authority and become disruptive in their behaviors. This can also increase the likelihood that some children will experiment in high-risk behaviors.
Older adolescents may experience a sense of helplessness and guilt, as they are stuck in the stage between adulthood and childhood. Though they might like to take on adult responsibilities in community response to the event, they may not be permitted to do so. Older teens might also deny the extent of their feelings towards the crisis (Dept. of Health & Human Services, 2005).
In summary, parents should watch for the following possible changes in their child's behavior:
- Refusal to return to school and "clinging" behavior.
- Persistent fears related to the current event or other crisis situation.
- Sleep disturbances, nightmares, screaming in their sleep or bed-wetting.
- Loss of concentration and irritability.
- Startled easily, jumpy.
- Misbehaving in school or at home that is not typical of your child.
- Physical complaints such as stomachaches, headaches, dizziness.
- Withdrawal from family and friends, sadness, decreased activity
- Preoccupation with the events surrounding the disaster.
(American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2004)
There are many things you can do to ease the effects of a crisis situation on your child. Beyond talking to them about the event, it is important to monitor and limit your child's exposure to television, radio and internet reports and images of the event. This can bother the child even more as time passes. Help your child stay on a normal routine if at all possible. Children are reassured by familiarity and structure in their lives (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2003).
Involving children in activities where they can help the victims of the violence is a good way to help the child cope with their feelings. The activities the child can do will depend on their age. Younger children can send drawings and cards to disaster victims or the rescue teams; older children may want to donate blood or volunteer with a community organization that is offering to help the victims, such as the American Red Cross (Department of Education, 2005).
It is important to watch for physical symptoms of stress in your child during times of crisis. Many children show anxiety through physical aches that do not appear to have a medical cause. Relay information to your child's teachers about their specific fears or concerns. Children who have been through previous trauma are more at risk for intense reactions. It is important to watch for this to provide them with more support and attention when necessary. If your child seems preoccupied or very stressed about crisis situations, they should be evaluated by a mental health professional, as it could be a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2004).
Each school in the community should have a policy in place regarding communicating disaster or crisis information with their staff, the children and the parents. This information should come in a timely fashion and be clear about how the school will function in the event of a crisis and the days immediately following. The school should identify one staff member to be in charge of leading the communication of these policies to the parents and staff. Another person, preferably with mental health background, should be available to provide support to their school community. The administration should make it clear how parents can seek information on the policies and to get support or guidance. If you wish to know how your child's school handles crisis situations, contact the school administration (New York University Child Study Center, 2006).
If you are a teacher or child care provider, there are a few things that you can do before and after a disaster for your students. First, identify the children you think will be at risk for more problems in handling the situation. This could be children that are directly impacted by the disaster or those with previous mental health issues. Work with the school's mental health professional to develop a plan for recognizing warning signs of the children in your classroom or in your care. During and following an event, in as much as possible, provide the children with a safe and reassuring environment. Although children should not be forced to talk about the event, they should be encouraged to express their feelings by letting them know it is okay to do so. If it seems fitting, you can create a memorial within your school or classroom. School memorials should be kept brief and age appropriate. Try to resume a normal routine for the school day. This will help the children feel that the situation has not taken over their daily lives. Make sure to reassure the children that school staff and other adults in the community are doing everything they can to keep everyone safe. Allow the students to discuss the event in the classroom – but make it optional so that those who are not comfortable with talking about it are not forced to do so. Make yourself aware of the signs that a child may need extra support. Another important aspect that is often overlooked is to take care of yourself and your colleagues. Create ways that the staff can support one another.
Lastly, keep your children's parents informed on the activities and recommendations surrounding the situation. Let them know what is being done within the school so that they are prepared to discuss things at home with their children.