Working with Children after Natural Disasters

by Marissa Wilson, LMSW

If you've had to evacuate your home or have seen media coverage of the recent flooding in South Louisiana, your children might be experiencing trauma. Yes, even seeing and hearing about the recent disaster can be traumatic for children…and it's a normal reaction! Maybe you experienced flood damage in your home, or maybe the child's birth family experienced damage to their home. As children return to school, they might hear of classmates who experienced damage to their home or hear stories from friends at church. Wherever the exposure comes from, we want to make sure you know how to handle it and what to expect. Here are some tips for working with children after natural disasters:

  • Maintain as much normalcy as possible—Keep schedules and routines as consistent as possible (bedtime, meals, etc.). Creating a sense of normal life is important, and keep routines consistent is a great way to do this.
  • Try to watch news coverage on TV or the internet with them so that you know what they are hearing and seeing. Limit access so that they have time away from the trauma. Don't let talking about the trauma take over family time for long periods of time.
  • Reflect what children say and validate their feelings and experiences. For example, if a child expresses anger about the event, confirm that it's normal to feel angry about it and that it's okay to talk about how she feels. This does not mean condoning inappropriate behavior, but rather guiding children to express emotions by their words.
  • Discuss some of the thoughts and feelings children may be experiencing in reaction to the event. Examples of normal reactions to disasters include irrational fears (e.g., safety of building, fear of lights in the sky), irritability, disobedience, depression, excessive clinging, headaches, nausea, visual or hearing problems, and eating problems. Sometimes children might revert to past behaviors of not listening or displaying disruptive behavior. Remember, this might be their natural reaction to fear. Help them get back to a place of felt safety. Sometimes, "bottled up" emotions can surface after disasters. These events can serve as a "can opener" to letting those feelings out.
  • Encourage children to show compassion to each other. Some children may be insensitive, aggressive, or laugh inappropriately as a way of coping with difficult emotions. Give them ways to show compassion, whether that is writing a card to first responders or picking out donation items.
  • Reassure children that they are safe with you. When working with children from hard places, we know that felt safety is important. Be patient with children as your reestablish (or continue to establish) this in your home. Remember, children from hard places need to see their needs met many times to gain attachment and truly understand that they are safe.
  • Don't be afraid to say that you don't have an answer. Children might have a lot of questions about the event or what to expect in the days and weeks to come. It's ok to not have an answer to every question, but don't give false information.
  • Don't demand that children share their feelings with you, they may not be ready. Allow children to ask questions or share feelings on their terms; when children are ready to talk, they will. Support children spending time with friends or having quiet time to write or create art. Children may not know how to express what they are feeling with words, but play and art can be excellent avenues of expression.
  • Remember to keep your child's DCFS worker informed of any unusual behavior, especially if the behaviors persist. These behaviors are typical reactions to high stress events, but they typically subside after a few weeks. If you notice your child's behavior lasting more than 2-4 weeks, they might need some additional care.
  • Model self-care—It is important that you take care of yourself! Be sure to eat healthy meals, get enough sleep, exercise, and practice healthy coping skills. Remember, if you are not taking care of yourself, you can't take care of someone else.

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