Children Are Not Immune To Disaster Stress

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Release date: 
July 19, 2010
Release Number: 
1894-076

WARWICK, R.I. -- It is important for parents and guardians to understand that children can be particularly vulnerable to stress following disaster events such as the recent floods. Children may suffer from anxiety because of disaster losses and the upheaval of family life.

“While children tend to bounce back quickly with social support and the aid of their families, it is important to be aware of your child’s reaction to stress and anxiety and seek additional help if necessary,” said Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Federal Coordinating Officer Craig A. Gilbert.

According to Craig Stenning, director of the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, “Children’s reactions to the flooding and the aftermath are strongly influenced by how their parents, teachers, and other caregivers cope during and after the events.  Children often turn to these adults for information, comfort and help.”

Pool openings and ‘beach season’ may also trigger stress in children, with the water reminding children of the disaster event.

Caregivers should be alert to signs of trouble and how to handle them.

After a crisis, children below the age of 5 may cry more frequently than usual, become clingy, have nightmares, show excessive fear of the dark, fear of animals, or fear of being alone. Appetites may change. Children may speak with difficulty or revert to behaviors such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking.

Children ages 5 - 11 may exhibit increased irritability and aggression, and compete with siblings for parental attention. They may also show anxiety through whining, withdrawing from their peers, and losing interest in normal activities. Those aged 11-18 may display outright rebellion, physical problems, and sleep disturbances.

The following suggestions may help to reduce stress in children:

  • Spend time each day giving each child undivided attention, even if just for a few minutes. Share experiences. Reaffirm your love. Make plans together. Just “be there” for each other.
  • 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. Assure them that the disaster 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 that parents accept anxieties as being very real to children. Help them understand what causes their anxieties and fears. Recognize their losses, such as their pets, favorite toys and other personal items. Reassure them that everything will be all right.
  • Explain what is going on. Make every effort to keep children informed about what is happening. Explanations should be in simple language. With children 5 or older, rehearse safety measures for use in case of future disasters.
  • Reassure them. Parents can help reassure children by telling them they are safe, holding and hugging them frequently, restoring normal routines, providing play experiences and making bedtime a special moment of calm and comfort.
  • Encourage activities with their peers. As with adults, social time with friends is a very important part of the recovery process.
  • Temporarily lower expectations. Allow for the fact that stress from the disaster can show itself in many ways over a period of time and make appropriate allowances. 

Through your persistence, children will realize life will eventually return to normal. If a child does not respond to the above suggestions, seek help for them from a behavioral health professional. Help can be accessed 24/7 through Rh...

Last Updated: 
July 16, 2012 - 18:46
State/Tribal Government or Region: 
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