Dealing with a disaster is bad enough for us, but going through one as a child can be terrifying. What you do and say plays a huge role in helping your child feel safe again. While most kids don’t develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, says Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D., a member of the American Psychological Association Disaster Response Network, you should follow these steps. You can find more resources at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network website.
1. Talk Therapy. First, make sure she knows that you’re always willing to talk about anything related to the tragedy, like scary thoughts she has, or what she can realistically expect to occur (or not) in the future. Pretending it never happened will make matters worse. Instead, Dr. Gurwitch suggests saying something like, “How are you feeling after the tornado? What do you think might happen now?” If your child isn’t open about his feelings normally, try: “So what are your friends saying about the flood?” Don’t force a discussion, but let your child know you’re there.
Chelly Wood of Twin Falls, ID, remembers the importance of talking it out. She was 12 when Mount St. Helens erupted, home alone with her 3-year-old sister. “I was so scared, not knowing what was causing day to turn to night.” But she knew she had to stay calm for her sister’s sake, so she distracted her with talking, games, and hugs.
For years after the eruption, Wood had nightmares that the sky turned black and she was coveredwith ash. What got her through was talking. “It helped to bring my emotions and memories to the surface,” she recalls. “Everyone in the area would ask each other, ‘Where were you when the mountain blew?’ which seemed to bring us all the support we needed. My mom was the best sounding board. She always stopped what she was doing to listen to me without dismissing my feelings. That helped me move on.” Along with keeping an open dialogue, experts recommend limiting or even eliminating their exposure to disaster-related television coverage.
2. Reach out. Helping can be therapeutic for children as well as adults. If yours want to lend a hand in the aftermath, let them do simple tasks such as helping a neighbor clean their yard or writing a thank you note to the first responders. “When children reach out to others, they increase their resilience,” says Dr. Gurwitch.
3. Try to keep a regular schedule. Getting back to a normal routine as much as you can, as soon as you can, hastens healing. “Connect children with their friends and regular activities— this provides a bit of security,” says Dr. Gurwitch.
4. Watch for these signs. Children’s lingering reactions run the gamut; there’s no one typical response. “Some kids become nervous about their own safety in general, and that of their family. Older kids might also be concerned about neighbors and friends,” says Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina and a member of American Psychological Association disaster response network. “Others may obsess about it happening again.” If symptoms go on for more than a month and/or interfere with routines, see a child psychologist with expertise in trauma.
After her family moved back into their house after Sandy, Christina Vercelletto’s 9-year-old daughter, Amelia, grew clingy when it was rainy and windy and the bay waters across the street splashed over the bulkheads. No matter how much Vercelletto assured her that waves were normal in such weather, she worried a flood was coming. Luckily, Amelia’s teacher had the students draw a picture, with a caption, of their Sandy experiences. It proved to be therapeutic for many of the children, including Amelia. Her drawing showed waves and a boat, with a dark cloud on one side, and a sun on the other. Her caption: “When I looked out my window long ago, the waves seemed bright and merry. Then Sandy came to town. Those waves were not bright, and they were not merry. But they will be again.”