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by Christopher Massey, MSW, LMSW
Community Resource Coordinator/Therapist
Children experience natural disasters differently than adults. They often feel unable to control what is going on around them and can have a difficult time coping with the emotional stress of the event. Even though children are resilient, they can develop symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress-related disorders during and even after a natural disaster. Caregivers may notice changes in their children such as:
It is crucial for caregivers to recognize the need behind their children’s behavior.
One of the most important things a caregiver can do is simply be present, in the moment, to assure them they are not alone in the situation. Validating and normalizing a child’s feelings will help them overcome fears and anxiety. A warm soothing tone of voice, soft touch, eye-level communication and inviting body language can make a child feel safe. He or she may need extra time and attention from a caregiver to cope with a natural disaster.
Encourage children to ask questions and provide them with factual information. This enables them to process what is going on around them.
Grounding is a mindfulness technique that can easily be taught and utilized by children. Caregivers can ask children to look around the room and name: five things they can see, four things they can feel, three things they can hear, two things they can smell, and one thing they can taste. This technique will help regulate emotions and calm anxiety by using the five senses.
Deep breathing and other mindfulness techniques can be useful as well. If a child has difficulty expressing their emotions verbally, caregivers can provide them with materials to draw or color a picture of how they are feeling. Stress balls, fidget toys and sensory bottles can keep children calm when feeling anxious. These items could easily be included in the family’s emergency kits.
Restoring a normal routine and limiting media exposure are essential in successfully coping with a natural disaster. It is common for children to experience mental health symptoms during and after a natural disaster. If the symptoms worsen and/or appear to be impacting a child’s daily functioning, consider seeking therapeutic services to help a child recover from the ordeal of a natural disaster.
PCHAS provides counseling to children and families facing challenges of all sorts. There is no cost and therapists may meet in the family home or another convenient location.