Whether children personally experience trauma, watch events unfold on television or overhear adult discussions, natural and manmade disasters can leave them feeling frightened, confused and insecure. To help kids or pups cope, parents, teachers and friends should take steps so they understand how to easily identify and reduce disaster-related stress.
Identifying Risk Factors
While individual reactions to natural and manmade disasters vary, there are some common denominators in young folks who experience stress brought on by emergency situations such as fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes, terrorism and the like. To help you identify risk factors, consider these common childhood reactions to disaster:
- Fear, especially at night
- Bedwetting or (in JR’s case), missing the puppy pad
- Sleep disturbances and nightmares
- Separation anxiety, clinging, dependant behavior
- Acting out with whining, tantrums or (in my family’s case), excessive barking
- Physical aggression (or, with my breed, bearing of teeth)
- Problems in elementary or obedience school
- Unexplained aches and pains
Although it is normal for both children and adults to react for a time to disasters near and far, for some, response to abnormal events can lead to more substantial, enduring psychological distress. Particularly at risk for this more serious, sustained negative behavior are children who have been directly exposed to physical disasters—such as those who were evacuated from their homes, have come in close contact with accident victims, witnessed deaths, suffered personal injuries or feared for their life and safety.
Also significant are secondary effects of disasters such as temporary changes in living arrangements, interruption in communication with friends and social networks, loss of personal property, parental unemployment and costs incurred during recovery to return the family to pre-disaster life and living conditions. A secondary effect for canines might be recovery from kennel cough.
In most cases, primary and secondary symptoms will diminish over time. But for those who were directly exposed to disasters, reminders may occasionally pop up such as high winds, smoke, cloudy skies, sirens, aftershocks or howling.
No matter the emergency, the ability of children to cope with disasters or emergencies is often tied to the way their parents cope. Kids and most animals are bright; so they can detect adult fears and sadness. So the best way to reduce trauma for kids is to take steps to effectively manage your own feelings as parents are almost always the best source of support for children in disasters.
Prior to disasters, FEMA advises the best way to establish a sense of control and to build confidence in children is to engage and involve them in preparing a family disaster plan. After a disaster, children can contribute to a family recovery plan.
After the Disaster/How to Help
- Encourage children and adolescents to share their thoughts and feelings.
- Clarify misunderstandings about risk and danger by listening to children’s concerns.
- Maintain a sense of calm by validating children’s concerns and perceptions.
- Listen to what the child is saying or the dog is barking.
- If a young child asks questions about the event, answer them.
- If a child has difficulty expressing feelings, allow the child to draw a picture or tell a story of what happened. Since it is always difficult for puppies to explain themselves, I suggest providing plenty of treats.
Suggestions to Help Reassure Children
- Hug your kids. Physical affection can restore feelings of security.
- Share just enough details about the event to assuage fears without contributing to insecurity.
- Quickly reestablish a daily routine. (For what it’s worth, I suggest the more mealtimes, the better.)
- Involve kids in your efforts to return to normal.
- Praise responsible behavior.
- Monitor media exposure.
- Take advantage of available support networks.
If, despite your efforts, your child continues to exhibit stress, and particularly if the reactions worsen over time or interfere with daily behavior at school, home, or with other relationships, it might be time to call in a professional. Seek assistance from a primary care physician, mental health professional, member of the clergy or veterinarian.
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