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Be Alert for Children's Post-Disaster Stress

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Release date: 
October 21, 1999
Release Number: 

NEW CASTLE, Del. -- Children, whether or not they show outward signs, are affected just as adults are by the stress of a natural disaster such as Hurricane Floyd. A month after the disaster, they may still be showing its effects. Their homes were damaged - perhaps even destroyed; favorite belongings are gone; daily routine is disrupted. The trauma may remain with children for months after the incident.

Children may be affected even more than adults by the stress and disruption, according to mental health experts. For children five years old or younger, it might take the form of frequent crying, nightmares, change in appetite, difficulty speaking, or returning to bed-wetting or thumb-sucking. The youngsters may show fear of animals or of being alone.

Children who are five to eleven years old may show anxiety by irritability, whining, aggression and competing with their siblings for parental attention. They might withdraw from their peers or lose interest in normal activities. Those who are 11-18 may show outright rebellion, physical problems, apathy or sleep disturbance.

As a remedy for children's stress, the Delaware Mobile Crisis Intervention Center offers these tips:

  • Spend some time each day giving each child your undivided attention, even if just for a few minutes. Share experiences, reaffirm your love, make plans together, and just "be there" for each other.

  • Encourage them to talk. Encourage them to describe what they are feeling. Let them talk about the disaster and ask questions as much as they want. Listen to what they say. Assure them that what happened was an act of nature and not caused by them. Include the entire family in the discussion, if possible.

  • Understand their fears. It is important parents accept anxieties as being very real to children. Help them cope by getting them to understand what causes their anxieties and fear. Recognize their losses, such as pets, favorite toys and other items. Reassure them with firmness and love that everything will be all right. Through your persistence, children will realize life eventually will return to normal. If children do not respond to the above suggestions, seek help for them from a mental health specialist.

  • Inform children. Parents should make every effort to keep children informed about what is happening. Explanations should be in simple language. With children five or older, rehearse safety measures to take in future disasters.

  • Reassure them. Parents can help reassure children by telling them they are safe and sound with their family, holding and hugging them frequently, restoring normal routines, providing play experiences for them, and making each bedtime a special moment of calm and comfort.

  • Encourage activities with peers, and lower expectations for them temporarily.

For more information on the availability of counseling services for survivors 17 years and younger in your area, contact your local community mental health center or call 302-633-5128 in New Castle County. These agencies have special disaster videos and materials.

Last Updated: 
July 16, 2012 - 18:46
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