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Disaster Response

By Sean Henahan, Access Excellence (updated 9/18/01)

"Families & teachers alike should know that they play a central role in helping children to understand what has taken place, to separate fact from fiction and to establish a sense of safety."

Rod Paige, U.S. Secretary of Education

San Francisco, CA (9/12/01)- The unspeakable tragedy of recent events casts a pall of fear and uncertainty around the world. Teachers and parents are on the front lines when it comes to helping children deal with disaster. We provide here some resources we hope may help in this task.

James Garbarino, professor of human development and co-director of the Family Life Development Center at Cornell University, offers the following advice on helping their children cope with the news of recent terrorist attacks. He is a nationally recognized expert on child development and youth violence.

His statement follows:

The national disaster that befell us on Sept. 11, 2001, challenges all of us in many ways, some of which we will not recognize for days, weeks or months to come. One of these is the way children cope.

We have learned important lessons from our previous experiences with children coping with traumatic disasters -- wars (the Gulf War), natural catastrophes (e.g., earthquakes), school shootings (e.g., Columbine), and other terrorist acts (e.g., Oklahoma City).

Children in general will need reassurance that they and their loved ones are safe . Young children particularly will need words and actions to communicate calm and safety rather than anxiety and fear. The evidence is clear that children cope best when adults avoid being incapacitated by fear and anxiety. Trying to restore regular routines is important to reassure children that normal life will resume.

Children already coping with loss and fear will need special reassurance . Who are these children? They are children who have parents away from home, who are involved in a divorce, who are hospitalized, who have lost a loved one recently, or who in some other way are specially worried about issues of safety, stability and security. Everyone connected with these "at risk" children must make special efforts to offer physical, emotional and intellectual nurturing and support.

Children will need a chance to ask their questions and get factual information to dispel misperceptions and rumors that will arise due to their immature reasoning and knowledge . Adults should make themselves available to children to listen and then respond rather than just lecturing them on what adults think is important. Hear and see the world through the ears and eyes of children to know what to do to help them.

Parents and other adults will naturally tend to become preoccupied, anxious, and sad by the disaster, but they must guard against this where children are concerned. If adults are "psychologically unavailable," children will suffer. This is a major issue. The message to parents is clear: Don't become glued to the television and unavailable to your children when they need you most.


[Garbarino has worked with children, youth and families dealing with trauma and violence for more than 25 years, including in war zones around the world and in situations of community and family violence in the United States. He is the author of 18 books, including, most recently, Parents Under Siege: Why You Are The Solution, Not the Problem in Your Child's Life (New York: The Free Press, 2001).

The American Academy for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry offers the following advice:

A catastrophe such as an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, fire, flood, or violent acts is frightening to children and adults alike. It is important to acknowledge the parts of the disaster when talking with a child about it. Falsely minimizing the danger will not end a child's concerns. Several factors affect a child's response to a disaster.

The way children see and understand their parents' responses are very important. Children are aware of their parents' worries most of the time, but they are particularly sensitive during a crisis. Parents should admit their concerns to their children, and also stress their abilities to cope with the situation.

A child's reaction also depends on how much destruction and/or death he or she sees during and after the disaster. If a friend or family member has been killed or seriously injured, or if the child's school or home has been severely damaged, there is a greater chance that the child will experience difficulties.

A child's age affects how the child will respond to the disaster. For example, six-year-olds may show their worries about a catastrophe by refusing to attend school, whereas adolescents may minimize their concerns, but argue more with parents and show a decline in school performance. It is important to explain the event in words the child can understand.

Following a disaster, people may develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is psychological damage that can result from experiencing, witnessing, or participating in an overwhelmingly traumatic (frightening) event. Children with this disorder have repeated episodes in which they re-experience the traumatic event. Children often relive the trauma through repetitive play. In young children, upsetting dreams of the traumatic event may change into nightmares of monsters, of rescuing others, or of threats to self or others. PTSD rarely appears during the trauma itself. Though its symptoms can occur soon after the event, the disorder often surfaces several months or even years later.

Parents should be alert to these changes in a child's behavior:

  • Refusal to return to school and "clinging" behavior, including shadowing the mother or father around the house
  • Persistent fears related to the catastrophe (such as fears about being permanently separated from parents)
  • Sleep disturbances such as nightmares, screaming during sleep and bedwetting, persisting more than several days after the event
  • Loss of concentration and irritability
  • Startled easily, jumpy
  • Behavior problems, for example, misbehaving in school or at home in ways that are not typical for the child
  • Physical complaints (stomachaches, headaches, dizziness) for which a physical cause cannot be found
  • Withdrawal from family and friends, sadness, listlessness, decreased activity, and preoccupation with the events of the disaster

Professional advice or treatment for children affected by a disaster--especially those who have witnessed destruction, injury or death--can help prevent or minimize PTSD. Parents who are concerned about their children can ask their pediatrician or family doctor to refer them to a child and adolescent psychiatrist.

The Red Cross offers extensive resources for helping people of all ages to cope with disaster. Excerpts for helping children follow

Children of different ages react in different ways to trauma.

Preschool and Kindergarten
In the face of an overwhelming event, very young children can feel helpless, powerless, and unable to protect themselves. When the safety of their world is threatened, they feel insecure and fearful. Children this age cannot understand the concept of permanent loss. They believe that consequences are reversible. They will repeatedly recreate parts of the disaster in their play. These are all normal reactions. Abandonment is a major childhood fear, so children need frequent reassurance they will be cared for and will not be left behind.

Activities for home or school: play acting, physical contact, puppets, art, stories, large muscle movement (throwing balls, etc.).

School age (7 to 11 years)
Children at this age have the ability to understand the permanence of loss from a trauma. They can become preoccupied with details of it and want to talk about it continually. They may not be able to concentrate in school and their grades drop. Since their thinking is more mature, their understanding of the disaster is more complete. This can result in a wide range of reactions: guilt, feelings of failure, and anger.

School age children can also slip back into earlier behaviors. As in younger children, sleep problems can appear. Their anxiety and fear may be seen in an increased number of physical complaints.

Activities for home or school: play acting, puppets, drawing and painting, sharing their experiences in groups, reading, creative writing or discussion.

Pre-adolescence and adolescence (12 to 18 years)
In this age group, children have a great need to appear knowledgeable and experienced to the world, especially to their family and friends. When they live through a traumatic event they need to feel their anxieties and fears are shared by their peers and are appropriate. Because they survived the trauma, they may feel immortal. This can lead to reckless behavior and taking dangerous risks. Their reactions are a mixture of earlier age group reactions and reactions that are more adult. Teenage years are a period of moving outward into the world. However, experiencing a trauma can create a feeling that the world is unsafe. Even teenagers may return to earlier ways of behaving. Overwhelmed by intense reactions, teens may be unable to discuss them with their family members.

Activities at school: general classroom activities, literature or reading, peer helpers, health class, art class, speech/drama, social studies/government, history.

How To Help Children

Routines
Children of all ages can benefit from the family keeping their usual routines—meals, activities, and bedtimes—as close to normal as possible. This allows a child to feel more secure and in control. As much as possible, children should stay with people with whom they feel most familiar.

Special Needs
Accept the special needs of children by allowing them to be more dependent on you for a period of time. Give more hugs if they need them; let them keep the light on at night or not sleep alone or return to having their favorite teddy bear or blanket; don't mind their clinging behavior.

Media Coverage
Following a disaster, everyone is eager to hear the latest news about what happened. However, disaster research has shown that unexpected messages or images on television were frightening, causing a reappearance of stress-related problems. In addition, anyone who watches the disaster coverage can become what is called a "secondary victim" and can suffer emotional and physical problems. It is best to not allow children to watch news coverage of the disaster.

Feelings and Reactions
Children express their feelings and reactions in different ways. Your acceptance of this will make a difference to how your child recovers from the trauma. This means accepting that some children will react by becoming withdrawn and unable to talk about the event, while others will feel intensely sad and angry at times and at other times will act as if the disaster never happened. Children are often confused about what has happened and about their feelings. However, don't be surprised if some children don't seem to be affected by what they have seen and heard. Not everyone has immediate reactions; some have delayed reactions that show up days, weeks, or even months later, and some may never have a reaction.

When To Seek Professional Help
Children are amazingly flexible, even though they can be deeply affected by trauma or losses. Sometimes a child can be helped by a counselor who can provide a safe place to talk about what happened and their feelings. Getting professional help is a good idea if a child shows any of the following changes for longer than three months following the trauma:

  • Behavior or academic problems at school.
  • Angry outbursts.
  • Withdrawal from usual social activities or play with other children.
  • Frequent nightmares or other sleep disturbances.
  • Physical problems such as nausea, headaches, weight gain or loss.
  • Intense anxiety or avoidance behavior that is triggered by reminders of the event.
  • Depression or a sense of hopelessness about life or the future.
  • Alcohol or drug use problems.
  • Dangerous risk-taking behavior.
  • Continued worry about the event as a primary focus in life.

Seeing a counselor does not mean that a child is "mentally ill" or that you have failed to support him or her. Following a trauma, many adults and children have found that it is helpful to talk with a counselor who has specialized training in post-traumatic reactions and can help them understand and deal with how they are feeling.

Suggestions from U.S. Secretary of Education

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige announced the establishment of a a new web page providing suggestions for ways educators can talk with children about the recent attacks. The webpage also provides links to additional resources that may be helpful to parents, teachers and other adults who work with children.

"All adults should be concerned about how well the children in their lives understand what has taken place. Families & teachers alike should know that they play a central role in helping children to understand what has taken place, to separate fact from fiction and to establish a sense of safety. There are simple things adults can do -- but the most important is to listen to and talk to the children in their lives. They also need to watch for signs of unusual behavior and take steps to limit exposure to television & Internet imagery," Paige said.

The Secretary also announced that the U.S. Department of Education would be making a series of grants totaling in the millions of dollars to the school districts directly affected by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center & the Pentagon.

"It will take some time for the school districts that have suffer directly as a result of these acts of terror to determine the nature and extent of their need for our assistance. They each have our assurance that Project SERV grants will be available to them when they determine their needs and priorities. The U.S. Department of Education will be there to assist our schools in meeting the needs of their students & faculty & the communities they serve."

The common thread running through advice from mental health professionals is that teachers and parents have an essential role to play in helping children through both the immediate aftermath of the current disasters, and the through the longer term as well. Much of this involves shifting the focus from the blanket media coverage to a more personal and supportive human interaction.

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