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Discussions With Kids About Disasters

How to Talk to Your Kids About Disaster

"Pow! Fire!" said my toddler son, eyes widened, starfish hand outstretched to the television screen. Like millions of Americans, he and I tuned in September 11 expecting the prattle of morning news anchors and found disaster: a live picture of the second airplane bludgeoning the World Trade Center.

In the aftermath, as jet fighters flew patrols over New York and Washington and warships steamed along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts in case they needed to protect major cities from another wave of suicide attacks, parents like myself grappled with another terror: explaining an evil act to wide-eyed innocents.

My 7-year-old daughter had her own logic. She knew immediately that it must be an accident, for no one would intentionally do such a harmful act. She was wrong. But how much should I tell her? What did she need to know?

Discussing Disaster

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology, it is important to acknowledge the frightening parts of a disaster when talking with a child; falsely minimizing the danger will not end a child's concerns.

Several factors affect a child's response to a disaster, including:

  • Parental reaction: The way children see and understand their parents' responses is very important. Children are aware of their parents' worries most of the time, but they are particularly sensitive during a crisis. Parents should admit their concerns to their children and also stress their abilities to cope with the situation.
  • Visual images: A child's reaction also depends on how much destruction or death he or she sees during and after the disaster. If a friend or family member has been killed or seriously injured, or if the child's school or home has been severely damaged, there is a greater chance that the child will experience difficulties.
  • The child's age: A child's age affects how the child will respond to the disaster. For example, 6-year-olds may show their worries about a catastrophe by refusing to attend school, whereas adolescents may minimize their concerns, but argue more with parents and show a decline in school performance.

Behavior Problems

It is important to explain the event in words the child can understand. But it is equally important to remain vigilant. For some children, seemingly unexplained behavior problems even months after disasters should be expected. The delay in reaction is a part of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to the National Institutes for Mental Health. PTSD is psychological damage that can result from experiencing, witnessing or participating in an overwhelmingly traumatic or frightening event.

Children with this disorder have repeated episodes in which they re-experience the traumatic event. Children often relive the trauma through repetitive play. In young children, upsetting dreams of the traumatic event may change into nightmares of monsters, of rescuing others or of threats to self or others. PTSD rarely appears during the trauma itself. Though its symptoms can occur soon after the event, the disorder often surfaces several months or even years later.

Watch for these changes in your child's behavior:

  • Refusal to return to school and "clinging" behavior, including shadowing the mother or father around the house;
  • Persistent fears related to the catastrophe (such as fears about being permanently separated from parents);
  • Sleep disturbances such as nightmares, screaming during sleep and bedwetting persist more than several days after the event;
  • Loss of concentration and irritability;
  • Startled easily, jumpy;
  • Behavior problems, for example, misbehaving in school or at home in ways that are not typical for the child;
  • Physical complaints (stomachaches, headaches, dizziness) for which a physical cause cannot be found;
  • Withdrawal from family and friends, sadness, listlessness, decreased activity and preoccupation with the events of the disaster.

Professional advice or treatment for children affected by a disaster – especially those who have witnessed destruction, injury or death – can help prevent or minimize PTSD. Parents who are concerned about their children can ask their pediatrician or family doctor to refer them to a child and adolescent psychiatrist.

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