How To Help Your Children Cope After A Natural Disaster—Or Pandemic

A natural disaster or even a global pandemic can cause a lot of damage—to our homes, our communities, and our lives. For children the stress and anxiety brought on by the disaster itself, coupled with any damages left behind can be difficult to cope with. But there are some things you can do to help make the experience a bit easier and help your children cope after a such a situation occurs.

Be Aware Of Your Own Reactions

Children are often confused during a natural disaster/pandemic and may not know how they should feel. When this happens, they will look to you to see what your actions and reactions are and gauge how you feel. You will be their biggest influence! The better you are able to control your own feelings, the more it will help your children control theirs.

Encourage Dialogue On Their Level

It is important for you to talk openly and honestly with your children about the event they have experienced. Children should be encouraged to express their feelings and concerns honestly. You should respond truthfully, but without dwelling on negative details. It is also important to make sure you remain calm while talking with your children. When talking to your children make sure you are using age-appropriate details and explain the event in words they will be able to understand, and in a way that will not further overwhelm them.

Reassure Your Children

Acknowledge your children’s feelings about the event and reassure them that all feelings are alright. Let them know that you are there to help them through it and provide reassurance that there is a plan in place for their safety. You can review this plan with your children and ask for their input as well. Make sure you are available for lots of physical reassurance like hugs and cuddles as children can need a lot more of this during and after a disaster.

Helping your children find the positives within the situation can also help them feel reassured – positives could be

  • how well the community pulls together to help each other out after the disaster,
  • donating medicine and food to other survivors,
  • sending mail to those who are excessively isolated,
  • pointing out how many people are coming together across the world to help your community recover from the disaster, and
  • helping your children find ways to show their care and support for others, especially other children.

Tune Out Media Coverage

The media tends to focus on the negative and can come off as explaining the event in a cold and matter-of-fact manner. Hearing these details in this manner over and over again can be especially difficult for children, creating even more confusion and anxiety. Make sure that your children are not tuned into media coverage of the event if they have their own TVs, tablets, or computers that they use. If your children are insistent on watching media coverage of the event, make sure you are watching it with them, so you can monitor their reactions and make sure they understand what they are seeing and hearing the right way. Don’t allow them to watch the coverage over and over again, one time is enough.

Return To Your Normal Routine

Children benefit from having structure and routine. They perform better and cope easier when they know what to expect. The sooner you are able to return your children and your family to their regular routine, the easier it should be for them to cope. The closer your life is to before the disaster occurred, the better. If you can’t return to all regular routines right away then start with what you can like eating dinner at the same time and going to bed at the same time, then start returning to other regular parts of your routine as soon as you are able to.

Know The Warning Signs For Serious Trauma

For most children, reactions to disasters and pandemics are brief and can be well managed with your assistance and a good support network, but sometimes children can experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is important that you know the signs of serious trauma and react to them appropriately.

Risk factors that could increase the chance of your child experiencing serious trauma may include:

  • Direct exposure to the disaster such as having to evacuate, observing others sustain injuries, or sustaining injuries to themselves.
  • Becoming ill or having a family member fall seriously ill during the pandemic.
  • Grief relating to the death of close family members or friends.
  • On-going stress from secondary effects, such as having to stay in temporary housing, loss of established social networks, loss of personal property, or parent’s loss of employment.
  • Having had prior stressful events occur in their family life such as divorce, serious illness, or death of a family member or friend (not related to the disaster or pandemic).
  • Having an emotional or learning disability.

Warning signs that indicate your child may be experiencing serious trauma can include:

  • Repeated episodes in which your child re-experiences the traumatic event, such as reliving the trauma through repetitive play, upsetting dreams of the traumatic event, or threats to their selves or others.
  • Refusal to return to school or leave the home.
  • “Clinginess” towards parents, including shadowing parents around the home. General fear of being separated from parents.
  • Continuing fears about the event or potential consequences of the event reoccurring.
  • Sleep disturbances including nightmares, screaming, and bedwetting that persist more than several days after the event.
  • Loss of concentration or difficulty paying attention.
  • Easily startled or jumpiness.
  • Behavior problems that are unusual for your child, such as misbehaving in school or at home in ways the child normally would not.
  • Physical complaints including headaches, stomachaches, and dizziness in which no other reasonable cause can be found.
  • Withdrawal from family and friends, sadness, and listlessness.
  • Decreased activity.
  • Preoccupation with the events of the disaster.

If you think your child may be suffering from PTSD, it is best to seek professional help as soon as possible. 

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