Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Tips for Talking with Children After A Natural Disaster by Lori Berry

Tornadoes, hurricanes, floods… it seems like we are hearing about more and more about such natural disasters every day.  With our world becoming more accessible via the internet and the news media, our children are likely more exposed to tragedy such as natural disaster than previous generations of children have been exposed to.  The frequency and magnitude of these natural disasters and the access that our children have to national and world news make it vital that the trusted adults in their lives be prepared to talk to them about what has happened and to answer their questions.  The following are some basic tips when talking with children about natural disasters and the trauma that all too often ensues:
1)                              Information.  Ask the children what they know about the event and then provide information based on what they already know.  For very young children, give basic, concrete information about what happened and assure them that there are many people working to make sure that they are safe.  Do not provide unnecessary details of the event as this is likely to overwhelm them.  Older children will likely want and need more information depending on their age.  However, it is important to limit media coverage of the event no matter the age of the child as children can become overwhelmed by information and graphic images.
2)                              Answering questions.  Young children especially may ask very direct questions that may be difficult to answer.  Some children may ask questions such as “Why did God allow this to happen?”  There are no clear answers to many of the questions that often follow a disaster.  If you do not know the answer, it is ok to say that you do not know.  However, it is important to reassure children of God’s love for us and that He is always with us to help us get through even the most difficult of times.
2)               Feelings and emotions.  Encourage children to express the emotions that they are feeling about the event.  Allowing children to keep their fears to themselves is often more damaging than having an open discussion.  If you feel like your child is having an especially difficult time coping with the event, seek advice from other trusted adults or from a professional counselor. Young children may express their stress in seemingly unusual ways such as behavioral changes, withdrawal, and reverting to behaviors characteristic of their younger years (i.e. bed wetting, tantrums, etc.).  Older children such as preteens and teenagers may act aloof as if they are not bothered by the disaster.  In any case, it is important to model healthy coping skills such as talking about your own feelings as an adult and asking about their feelings as well.   Tell them how you cope yourself -- that you sometimes go for a walk, talk to others, listen to music, read the Bible, and pray.  Tell them that you pray when you get upset and that they can pray or come to you to pray together when they are upset. 
3)                              Reassurance.  Reassure them that Jesus is with us even during the difficult times and will help us get through them.  Assure them that God loves them. When parents give children time, love and hope through Jesus Christ, parents help them to cope with their fears, anger and confusion.  Share Bible verses together that reassure them of God’s love for them.
4)                              Maintain normalcy.  Normal routine equates to a sense of security for children.  The familiarity of everyday routines is critical to children’s ability to cope effectively with uncontrollable circumstances in their lives.  Unless children have been directly affected by the disaster (home damages or destroyed, death or injury to loved ones, etc.), it is helpful to not have their lives revolve around the disaster and its effects.  Too much exposure is overwhelming and unsettling, but normalcy provides a sense of control and security. 
5)               Get them involved.  Like adults, children may feel helpless after a natural disaster.  You might allow them to participate in relief efforts, write letters, sending care packages, or collecting needed supplies. Pray together as a family for the victims and their families, the doctors and medical personnel, and other helpers such fire fighters and police officers.  School age children may want to donate their change or get involved with fundraisers to donate to disaster funds. These actions show children that the parents and adults have hope, and these actions demonstrate children that something can be done to help people in Jesus’ name. 

            Most importantly, answer questions and provide support according to the child’s developmental age, temperament, and individual circumstances.  Children are much more capable of understanding than we often give them credit for; however, they will need your guidance to help them cope with disasters that may come through their lives. 

Lori Berry, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Shreveport, Louisiana

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