Helping Children Cope in the Aftermath of a Disaster or Crisis
Written by Gail K. Roaten, Ph.D., LPC-S
Children and adolescents will be affected by fear after tragic events such as disasters and specific crises. It is important for counselors, teachers, parents, and other adults to respond appropriately. School counselors, administrators, and mental health professionals need to work together to develop systemic/systematic strategies to intervene with children and adolescents that may be suffering from fear and general feelings of not being safe. Diminished responsiveness such as “psychic numbing” or “emotional anesthesia” usually begins shortly after a traumatic event. Sometime reactions will appear immediately, or a delayed reaction might take place with symptoms developing weeks or months after the crisis. If after assessing a student’s functioning you decide that individual counseling is necessary, please contact me and I will provide some suggestions. This will be the topic for our next consultation! There are certain protocols to follow. In addition, some types of interventions work better than others. We will discuss these strategies in depth next time we meet.
When dealing with large groups of children, David Walsh (2001) provides some very timely tips on how adults can help children deal with crisis of national proportions.
Things to Remember
- Fear is an intense concern or worry caused by real or imagined danger.
- Fear is a natural and normal reaction to a scary event.
- Children younger than five years old cannot always tell fantasy from reality. Media depictions of attacks can be as scary as a real attack.
- Some children will exhibit fear through behavior, not words. Examples might include a lump in the throat, crying, and abnormal agitation.
- Sensitive children with vivid imaginations are more prone to intense fear reactions.
- All children, even the very young, have a sixth sense that enables them to be aware of an adult’s fear & anxiety.
- Children respond differently at different ages, developmental stages.
Tips to Help Children with Fear
- The best overall strategy is to do tow things simultaneously: acknowledge their fear while reassuring them.
- Take your cues form the child. Don’t assume they are more afraid than they may be. Conversely, don assume that they are unaware of what has happened.
- Take their fear seriously. Don’t try to talk them out of it.
- Respond calmly. Don’t exaggerate their fears by using extreme language or overreacting yourself.
- Answer their questions directly but don’t give them more information than they are asking for or that they need.
- Provide physical reassurance with lots of hugs and touching.
- Make sure they know it’s okay to ask questions.
- Manage the media diet of coverage according to their age.
Tips to Help Adolescents
Youth in junior high and high school have probably already talked about the attack with friends. It is important to be honest with them and let them know what is going on. This age may even be “glued” to the TV or internet, eager for more news and details.
- It is important to talk about what has happened, answer their questions as best you can, and discuss your reaction with them.
- Acknowledge feelings of fear, horror, anger, and sadness.
- Provide comfort & reassurance.
- Share details with younger adolescents but do not overwhelm them.
- Some may act out feelings; others might withdraw.
- Some teens may also block out the whole thing & refuse to acknowledge that anything “big” has happened or that they care. This is often masks real fears and feelings of being overwhelmed.
- Some teens may make jokes. That is a classic defense mechanism for some. Let them know it’s not funny without lecturing them.
- Some teens may be interested in discussing issues that this tragedy raises. Be willing to engage them in a serious discussion.
- Be careful to avoid placing blame on people, groups of people, labeling, etc.
- Use historical tragedies as examples or basis for conversation. Talk to teens about how the situation may be resolved. You may have to explain to younger adolescents that bad things do happen to innocent people, but as people of a nation, we go on and live our lives, trying to resolve such bad situations.