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Talking to Children About Disasters


Disasters can have tremendous psychological impacts on those directly and indirectly involved. People who are affected may have various stress reactions, including both psychological and physical symptoms. Children are no exception — understandably many young children may feel frightened and confused after a disaster or traumatic event. Fortunately, most children, even those exposed to trauma, are quite resilient.

By creating an open environment where they feel free to ask questions, we can help childrencope with stressful events and experiences, and reduce the risk of lasting emotional difficulties. Although these may be difficult conversations, they are important.

Create an open and supportive environment where children know they can ask questions. However, it's best not to force children to talk about things unless and until they're ready.

Use words and concepts children can understand. Gear your explanations to the child's age, language, and developmental level.

Give children honest answers and information. Children will usually know, or eventually find out, if you're "making things up." It may affect their ability to trust you or your reassurances in the future.

Be prepared to repeat information and explanations several times. Some information may be hard to accept or understand. Asking the same question over and over may also be a way for a child to ask for reassurance.

Acknowledge and validate the child's thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Let them know that you think their questions and concerns are important and appropriate.

Remember that children tend to personalize situations. For example, they may worry about their own safety and the safety of immediate family members, friends and neighbors.

Be reassuring, but don't make unrealistic promises. It can be an opportunity to show children that when something scary happens, there are people to help.

Help children find ways to express themselves. Some children may not want to talk about their thoughts, feelings or fears. They may be more comfortable drawing pictures, playing with toys or writing stories or poems.

Try to limit children’s exposure to upsetting news and frightening images. The repetition of such scenes can be disturbing and confusing.

Monitor for physical symptoms including headaches and stomachaches. Many children express anxiety through physical aches and pains. An increase in such symptoms without apparent medical cause may be a sign that a child is feeling anxious or overwhelmed.

Remember children learn from watching their parents and teachers. They will be very interested in how you respond to events. They also learn from listening to your conversations with other adults.

Consider seeking help from a mental health professional if a child:

  • is preoccupied with questions or concerns about fires or other natural disasters;
  • has ongoing sleep disturbances;
  • has intrusive thoughts or worries; or
  • has recurring fears about death, leaving parents or going to school.

Fortunately, most children, even those exposed to trauma, are quite resilient and by fostering open discussion and a supportive environment we can help.

Adapted from a post by David Fassler, M.D., child and adolescent psychiatrist in Burlington, Vermont, and clinical professor at the University of Vermont.




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