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Tips for Child Management in Crisis
Parents should spend time talking to their children, letting them know that it is okay to ask questions and to share their worries. Although it will be hard finding time, parents can use regular family mealtimes or bedtimes to talk. Issues may come up more than once and parents should remain patient and open to answering questions and clarifying the situation.
They should let children know, without overwhelming them with information, what is happening in the family, with their school, and in the community. Parents should answer questions briefly and honestly and ask their children for their opinions and ideas. To help younger children feel safe and calm after talking about the hurricane, parents might read a favorite story or have a relaxing family activity.
What Parents Can Do
To help children's recovery, parents should:
- Be a role model. Try to remain calm so that you can teach your child how to handle stressful situations. Monitor adult conversations. Be aware of what adults are saying about the hurricane or the damage. Children listen to adults' conversations and may misinterpret what they hear, becoming unnecessarily frightened.
- Limit media exposure. Protect your child from too many images and descriptions of the hurricane, including those on television, on the Internet, on radio, and in the newspaper.
- Reassure children that they are safe. You may need to repeat this frequently even after the hurricane passes. Spend extra time with your children, playing games outside, reading together indoors, or just cuddling. Be sure to tell them you love them. The coloring book Trinka and Sam: The Rainy Windy Day (PDF) , developed by the NCTSN's Early Trauma Treatment Network, can help children begin to talk about the feelings and worries they have after a hurricane.
- Replace lost or damaged toys as soon as you are able. Calm worries about their friends' safety. Even though phones may not be working, reassure your children that their friends' parents are taking care of them, just the way you are taking care of your children.
- Tell children about community recovery. Reassure them that the government is working hard to restore electricity, phones, water, and gas. Tell them that the town or city will be removing debris and helping families find housing.
- Take care of your children's health. Help them get enough rest, exercise, and healthy food and water. Give them both quiet and physical activities.
- Maintain regular daily life. In the midst of disruption and change, children feel more secure with structure and routine. As much as possible, have regular mealtimes and bedtimes.
- Maintain expectations. Stick to your family rules about good behavior and respect for others. Continue family chores, but keep in mind that children may need more reminding than usual.
- Encourage children to help. Children cope better and recover sooner when they help others. Give them small cleanup tasks or other ways to contribute. Afterward, provide activities unrelated to the hurricane, such as playing cards or reading.
- Be extra patient as your children return to school. They may be more distracted and need extra help with homework for a while.
- Give support at bedtime. Children may be more anxious when separating from parents. Spend a little more time than usual talking, cuddling, or reading. Start the bedtime routine earlier so children get the sleep they need. If younger children need to sleep with you, let them know it is a temporary plan, and that soon they will go back to sleeping in their own beds.
- Help with boredom. The hurricane may have disrupted the family's daily activities (watching television, playing on the computer, and having friends over) or caused the suspension of extracurricular activities (sports, youth groups, dances, or classes). Help children think of alternative activities, such as board games, card games, and arts and crafts. Try to find community programs (at the library, a park program, or a local YMCA) with child-friendly activities.
- Keep things hopeful. Even in the most difficult situation, your positive outlook on the future will help your children see good things in the world around them, helping them through challenging times.
- Seek professional help if your child still has difficulties more than six weeks after the hurricane.
Therapy for Children
If children are still having the reactions described above more than six weeks after the hurricane, parents should consult a mental health professional for an evaluation. If the clinician recommends counseling, keep in mind that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has the strongest evidence for helping children recover from a disaster. Therapy for children should typically include:
- Family involvement
- Awareness of the child's developmental level and cultural/religious differences
- Assessment of preexisting mental health problems, including prior traumas and loss
- Explanation and normalization of the child's psychological reactions to the hurricane
- Relaxation exercises and other skills to manage reactions to reminders of the hurricane
- Problem-solving and anger-management skills as needed
- Helping to maintain normal developmental progression
- Increasing positive activities and rebuilding social connections
[NOTE for health and mental health clinicians: To guide your evaluations of children use the Hurricane Assessment and Referral Tool for Children and Adolescents (PDF)]
Children will react differently to a hurricane and its aftermath depending on their age, developmental level, and prior experiences. Some will withdraw, while others will have angry outbursts. Still others will become agitated or irritable. Parents should be sensitive to each child's coping style. The following are typical reactions children exhibit following a hurricane or other natural disaster:
- Fear and worry about their safety and the safety of others, including pets
- Fear of separation from family members
- Clinging to parents, siblings, or teachers
- Worry that another hurricane will come
- Increase in activity level
- Trouble concentrating or paying attention
- Withdrawal from others
- Angry outbursts or tantrums
- Aggression toward parents, siblings, or friends
- Increase in physical complaints, such as headaches and stomachaches
- Change in school performance
- Long-lasting focus on the hurricane, such as talking repeatedly about it or acting out the event in play
- Increased sensitivity to sounds of thunder, wind, rain, or things crashing
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Changes in appetite
- Lack of interest in usual activities, even playing with friends
- Returning to earlier behaviors, such as baby talk, bedwetting, or tantrums
- Increase in teens' risky behaviors, such as drinking alcohol, using substances, harming themselves, or engaging in dangerous activities
What Parents Can Do to Help Themselves
Parents have a tendency to neglect their own needs during a crisis. To take good care of their children, parents must take good care of themselves. Here are some things for parents to keep in mind:
- Take care of yourself physically. Eat healthily, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, and get proper medical care.
- Support each other. Parents and caregivers should take time to talk together and find ways to meet each other's needs.
- Put off major decisions. Avoid making any life-altering decisions during this stressful posthurricane period.
- Give yourself a break. Try not to overdo cleanup activities. To reduce injury, avoid lifting heavy items or working for extended periods.