Discussing the Haiti Disaster with Your Children

In the wake of the horrific Haiti earthquake, you may be encountering questions from your children about the tragedy. It is important to remember even if we keep the images of the disaster from their viewing, they may hear about the event at school from their friends.

Natural disasters such as tornadoes or earthquakes, as well as man-made disasters such as bombs, can leave children feeling confused, scared, and vulnerable. Even if the child hasn’t experienced the disaster firsthand, they still may experience symptoms of stress if they feel impacted by the event. Some children may not express concerns right away, but others may become concerned immediately after learning of the event. After a large event, make sure you observe your kids’ behavior and check in with them if you believe there has been a change in their behavior.

These children will depend on parents and teachers to cope with any stress because they have not developed their own coping skills yet. They may regress to an earlier stage after a traumatic event. They may begin thumb-sucking, bed wetting, or become afraid of the dark and “monsters.” Other symptoms to look for are aggressive behavior or withdrawn behavior. Younger children may also tell exaggerated stories about the disaster or repeat the story of the event over and over.

This age group can have symptoms similar to younger children. They may also withdraw from friends or social groups. They may resist going to school and even compete for their parents’ attention. Grades may drop and teachers may report behavior changes as well. They may become distracted and anxious at school.

Older children will tend to have somatic complaints that are vague. They may become defiant and frustrated at home and at school. These children may show anxiety and stress by resisting authority and becoming disruptive. This age group may also begin engaging in high-risk behaviors such as drugs and alcohol.

Talking Tips for Children
• Monitor your child’s television viewing when a disaster has occurred. Do not let children watch the most graphic images. To the extent you are able, watching some coverage together may allow an opportunity for their questions and concerns to be addressed.
• Give children the opportunity to talk about what they are seeing on television and to ask you questions.
• Answer questions at the level a child can understand.
• Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t have all the answers.
• Allow children to explore other issues that make them feel insecure and unsafe. This is an opportunity to explore multiple issues they may be experiencing anyway.
• Children must be told that there are no bad emotions and that we all have a wide range of reactions to disasters and tragic events. Encourage your kids to express their feelings to you or teachers.
• Share some of your feelings about the disaster as well. This will help them feel that it is okay to be sad, scared, or angry.

It can be very helpful for children to express their feelings through actions. They can write letters or draw pictures to express their feelings. It is also empowering to encourage kids to give to those who have been directly impacted by the disaster. This will allow kids to feel they can contribute to the healing of those deeply impacted by the tragedy.

As parents, we must remember reassurance is the key to helping kids through a traumatic event. Really young kids need a lot of cuddling and kisses as well as verbal support. Answer questions directly about the event, but you also don’t want to dwell on the tragic details of the event or allow it to dominate their experience. It is important to help kids also identify good things that have come out of the tragic event, such as heroic actions and people rising up and offering assistance to those really hurting.

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Copyright 2013, Dr. Michelle Golland. All Rights Reserved.