BATON ROUGE, La. — Holidays can bring great joy — and great stress — for everyone, from toddlers to seniors. But for families disrupted by Hurricane Isaac, this year’s holiday season may bring added anxiety for children if they lost their homes, pets or treasured possessions.
While the support of their families can help many children work through their fears and sense of loss, the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) remind parents and other caregivers that free crisis counseling is available now and well into next year.
The counseling is available in the parishes designated for Individual Assistance under the major disaster declaration. The program, funded by FEMA and administered by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH), is open to any adult or child in designated parishes.
Children are particularly vulnerable to emotional stress after a disaster. Stress symptoms for all children may include excessive fear of the dark, fear of being alone, crying and constant worry. In addition to their feelings of loss, younger children may believe they somehow caused the hurricane. Depending on their developmental stage, those youngsters may not be able to express their emotions through words, so counselors who use therapies that do not rely on talking may be a better fit.
“Parents are the experts on their own children – they know when something’s out of line,” said Tom Davis, associate professor of psychology at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. “Three months after a disaster, if my child was still having difficulties, with symptoms like nightmares, flashbacks, not wanting to talk about it and always being in startle mode, I would consider counseling.”
Davis specializes in work with children’s issues, particularly child anxiety. He suggests parents and family members remember that children take their cues from the adults in their lives.
“If we’re talking about how bad things are, kids pick up on that,” Davis said. “Kids see how others respond to negative events, and model that fear, that anxiety, that worry.”
Trained counselors are provided by the network of state Human Services authorities and districts. Calls to the crisis lines are free of charge, as are face-to-face follow-up sessions for children (and adults) whose needs cannot be fully served through phone counseling.
The health department team encourages parents to help children through the season by listening and talking about their feelings, while reassuring them they are loved and that it’s OK to have these feelings. Children are resilient, and with reassurance, guidance and love, they will be able to take a life-changing event and develop the coping mechanisms to assist them in the future.
To learn more, call the DHH-Office of Behavioral Health Louisiana Spirit Crisis Line at 1-866-310-7977 or the Louisiana Behavioral Health Partnership at 1-800-424-4399.
Disaster recovery assistance is available without regard to race, color, religion, nationality, sex, age, disability, English proficiency or economic status. If you or someone you know has been discriminated against, call FEMA toll-free at 800-621-FEMA (3362). For TTY call 800-462-7585.
FEMA’s mission is to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.