HARRISBURG, Pa. -- As we enter into the midpoint of the 2006 hurricane season, it is important to remember that the threat of a hurricane or severe storm affecting Pennsylvania is still possible. Commonwealth and federal officials want parents and caregivers to be informed about how they can help the children they care for cope after experiencing a disaster.
Parents and caregivers should be aware that after a disaster some children may show temporary behavioral changes. Children may suffer from anxiety because of disaster losses and the upheaval of family life. Children with prior exposure to a disaster or other traumatic event are especially vulnerable. Because parents and caregivers are the best source of support for their children, we urge everyone to be alert for signs of trouble and how to handle them.
Caregivers with children ages five or younger should watch for the following behaviors: crying more frequently than usual, clinging, having nightmares, showing excessive fear of the dark, fear of animals, fear of being alone, changing appetites, speaking with difficulty, or returning to outgrown behaviors such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking.
Children ages five to 11 may exhibit increased irritability, aggression, and competition with their siblings for parental attention. They may also show anxiety through whining, withdrawing from their peers, and losing interest in normal activities. Those 11 to 18 may find concentrating at school harder and want to spend more time alone than usual. Older children may also show outright rebellion by becoming involved in more risk-taking behaviors, such as reckless driving and alcohol or drug use, because they are overwhelmed by their emotions yet unable to talk about them.
“It’s back to school time and we want to make sure all children within the affected communities start their school year right,” said James R. Joseph, Commonwealth Coordinating Officer for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA). “Hurricane season will not end for a few more months, so parents and teachers need to be aware of how to help relieve disaster related stress in children in the event of possible hurricanes or storms in the future.”
The following suggestions may help to reduce stress in children:
- 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.
- Understand their fears. It is important that parents accept anxieties as being very real to children. By understanding what causes their anxieties and fears you can help them cope. Recognize their losses, such as their pets, favorite toys and other personal items. Reassure them that everything will be all right.
- Encourage them to talk. Encourage children to describe what they are feeling. Let them talk about the disaster and ask as many questions as they like. Listen to what they say. Answer questions simply without the elaboration needed for an adult. Children vary in the amount of information they need and can use. If a child
has difficulty expressing his or her thoughts and feelings, then allowing them to draw a picture or tell a story of what happened may help.
- Involve them in disaster planning. Every effort should be made to keep children informed about what is happening. Involve your children in updating the family disaster and evacuation plans. Include them in the packing of a disaster kit. With children five or older, rehearse safety measures for use in case of future disasters. Assign roles to older children in practice drills. Discussing your preparedness plans with your children strengthens their sense of safety and security. It will also increase their confidence when disaster strikes. ...