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Talking to Children About Tornadoes

Families and professionals have different challenges in supporting children after disasters depending on many factors. First, of course, is the degree of impact.  Children who were injured or lost their homes obviously have very different needs from those who had no direct effects but who saw damage in their communities or on TV, or who spent time during the storm in a closet but did not get the worst of the storm.  This blog is meant to help you figure out how to help the children in your lives cope and recover.

Signs of Distress

Children’s needs vary by age and by their personality before the event.  Sensitive children may be upset just by hearing conversations at school or church, while other children can be surprisingly robust.  That said, it is useful to think about some common responses to disaster at different ages, especially when there is some direct effect on the child’s life. 

Young children often regress, acting less mature than previously.  For example, a child who was doing well going to bed and sleeping in her own room may have trouble with this, and get very upset at bedtime. 

School aged children may be more reluctant to leave their parents’ sides, may have bad dreams, and may become quite alarmed at any change in weather. 

Teens may become irritable or withdrawn.  For most children, these issues will resolve with time, but it may take patience for their caregivers.

What to Expect

Those who work with people who have experienced disasters often talk about stages that they may go through.  For example, it is common for the initial period to involve both shock and numbness, and a period of intense activity trying to deal with the immediate situation.   There can then be a short “honeymoon” when people are glad to be alive. 

But often this is followed by a period of disillusionment and frustration, as it becomes clear that things won’t return to normal right away.  This can be a painful time when people of all ages experience anxiety, feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and sometimes recurrent memories, difficulty concentrating, and other symptoms even in very normal individuals.  

Eventually, most people rally and develop new routines and supports as they gradually return to more normal times.

Regroup Sooner Rather Than Later 

Help children rebound faster by returning to a predictable routine as soon as possible.  This routine includes the basics like sleeping, meals, play and school on a regular schedule. 

Second, allow and facilitate the child to talk about what they experienced.  It can be helpful for children to “tell their story” repeatedly.  For younger children, this may mean “playing it out.” Keep in mind that as an adult, you may need to help the child find a positive resolution to the story, making sure that it ends with the family back together in a safe home with new possessions, for example.

Sometimes children may have difficulty expressing their feelings through words. Activities such as drawing, painting, taking photographs, and pounding play dough can allow children to express their feelings and memories in another way.

Many children benefit tremendously from the opportunity to help with the recovery process.  From the young child who helps to pick up sticks in the yard, to the school age child who helps with a bake sale to raise money for the Red Cross, to the teen who volunteers to help an elderly neighbor clean up, we know that making a difference helps the volunteer as well as the recipient.

If friends or family members are injured, even very young children can make a card or send a balloon or stuffed animal to their loved one. This gives them a role to play during this time of crisis, when even the grownups around them may be worried or anxious about that person’s well-being.

Seeking Support

Finally, adults need to look after themselves in order to provide optimal support to their children.   When in doubt, helpers in the community, including friends, relatives, pediatricians and family doctors, and counselors at school and church often are waiting for opportunities to help.  Various agencies across the state, notably Hospice have resources for children who experience bereavement. Mental health resources are available if needed, and the primary health provider is often a good place to figure out when and if such support is appropriate for an individual child or family.

Melissa Johnson, PhD, is a WakeMed child clinical psycologist with the pediatric development team, and Susan Davis, WakeMed Children’s Hospital child life specialist, co-authored this blog.

Want to know more?  WRAL also interviewed  Melissa Johnson about how parents can help children cope with disasters.  This story aired on April 19.