HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Children can be particularly vulnerable to the stressful effects of a disaster. They may suffer from anxiety because of disaster losses and the upheaval of family life.
Most children bounce back quickly with social support and the aid of their families, but it is important to be aware of your child's reaction to stress and anxiety and to seek additional help if necessary.
Officials of the Pennsylvania and Federal Emergency Management Agencies (PEMA and FEMA) recommend that children's caregivers be alert to signs of trouble and how to handle them.
For children ages 5 or younger, watch for behaviors like 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 aged 5 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.
Adolescents aged 12 to 18 may show outright rebellion, physical problems, or sleep disturbances. Some may compete vigorously for attention from parents and teachers. Others may withdraw, resist authority, become disruptive at home or in the classroom, or even begin to experiment with high-risk behaviors like alcohol or drug use.
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. 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 cope by getting them to 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.
- Inform children. 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 for them, 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 for them. 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.
For more information about behavioral health services available in your area, contact your county crisis hotline or mental health office. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
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