Children may respond to disasters by demonstrating fears, sadness or behavioral problems. Younger children may return to earlier behavior patterns, such as bedwetting, sleep problems, and separation anxiety. Older children may also display anger, aggression, problems in school, or withdrawal. Some children who have only indirect contact with the disaster but witness it on television may develop distress.
If you have children, keep open dialogues with them regarding their fears about the wildfires. Let them know that in time, the tragedy will pass. Don’t minimize the danger, but talk about your ability to cope with tragedy and get through the ordeal.
Recognize Risk Factors
For many children, reactions to disasters are brief and represent normal reactions to “abnormal events.” A smaller number of children can be at risk for more enduring distress if they experience these risk factors:
Direct exposure to the disaster, such as being evacuated or witnessing the fire
On-going stress from the secondary effects of disaster, such as temporarily living elsewhere, loss of friends and social networks, loss of personal property, parental unemployment, and costs incurred during recovery to return the family to pre-disaster life and living conditions.
Vulnerabilities in Children
In most cases, depending on the risk factors above, distressing responses are temporary. In the absence of severe threat to life or secondary problems such as loss of their home, symptoms usually diminish over time. For those that were directly exposed to the wildfire, reminders such as high winds, smoke, or sirens may cause upsetting feelings to return. Having a prior history of some type of traumatic event or severe stress may contribute to these feelings.
Children’s coping with disasters is often tied to the way parents cope. They can detect adults’ fears and sadness. Parents and adults can make disasters less traumatic for children by taking steps to manage their own feelings and plans for coping. Parents are almost always the best source of support for children in disasters. One way to establish a sense of control and to build confidence in children before a disaster is to engage and involve them in preparing a family disaster plan. After a disaster, children can contribute to a family recovery plan.
Meeting the Child’s Emotional Needs
Children’s reactions are influenced by the behavior, thoughts, and feelings of adults. Adults should encourage children and adolescents to share their thoughts and feelings about the incident. Clarify misunderstandings about risk and danger by listening to children’s concerns and answering questions. Maintain a sense of calm by validating children’s concerns and perceptions and with a discussion of concrete plans for safety.
Listen to what the child is saying. If a young child is asking questions about the event, answer them simply without the elaboration needed for an older child or adult. Some children are comforted by knowing more or less information than others; decide what level of information your particular child needs. If a child has difficulty expressing feelings, encourage the child to draw a picture or tell a story of what happened.
- Try to understand what is causing anxieties and fears. Be aware that following a disaster, children are most afraid that:
- The event will happen again.
- Someone close to them will be killed or injured.
- They will be left alone or separated from the family.
Reassuring Children After a Disaster
- Suggestions to help reassure children include the following:
- Personal contact is reassuring. Hug and touch your children.
- Calmly provide factual information about the recent disaster and current plans for ensuring their safety.
- Encourage your children to talk about their feelings.
- Spend extra time with your children such as at bedtime.
- Re-establish your daily routine for work, school, play, meals, and rest.
- Involve your children by giving them specific chores to help them feel they are helping to restore family life.
- Praise and recognize responsible behavior.
- Understand that your children will have a range of reactions to disasters.
If you have tried to create a reassuring environment by following the steps above, but your child continues to exhibit stress, if the reactions worsen over time, or if they cause interference with daily behavior at school, at home, or with other relationships, it may be appropriate to talk to a mental health professional.
Monitor and Limit Exposure to the Media
News coverage related to a disaster may elicit fear and confusion and arouse anxiety in children. Particularly for younger children, repeated images of an event may cause them to believe the event is recurring over and over.
If parents allow children to watch television or use the Internet where images or news about the wildfires are shown, parents should be with them to encourage communication and provide explanations.
Use Support Networks
Parents help their children when they take steps to understand and manage their own feelings and ways of coping. They can do this by building and using social support systems of family, friends, community organizations and agencies, faith-based institutions, or other resources that work for that family. If this feels overwhelming or prevents you from getting through your day, seek the advice of a mental health professional at Sunshine Community Health Center.
Vector illustration credit: Vecteezy
Information adapted from materials provided by FEMA, the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychiatric Association.