It’s a common belief that children grow out of their feelings, or that they are more adaptable than adults when dealing with the effects of a disaster. However, quite the opposite is true. Children have fewer coping skills than adults, and often don’t understand how to process fear and grief in psychologically healthy ways. Due to their vivid imaginations, children may blow events out of proportion or dwell on them. The results of poorly processed emotions can range from nightmares and anxiety to full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder. Caring adults can help children cope with disaster and process their feelings about horrible events in mature and mentally healthy ways.
Children and adults experience many of the same physical symptoms after distressing events such as, heart palpitations, shaking, panic, headaches, dizziness, and aggression. Once these symptoms pass, the distress can still continue with bouts of depression. As a result, parents should keep the following points in mind before engaging children in any kind of post-disaster counseling:
If the adult has been involved in the disaster, he or she is also coping with complex emotions. Seek outside help if at all possible.
Be respectful of the child’s readiness to move on. Grief is not a straightforward process; children experience emotional pain in different ways. Adults must respect the child’s pace and stay patient.
They must create safety inside of crisis. Without safety, children cannot begin to recover. Adults must let children know they care, and welcome them with warmth and acceptance.
The loss of people or pets is obvious but the loss of toys or treasures will feel unique for each child. These smaller holes in a child’s life can add up and cause continued distress.
Give children the opportunity to explore their thoughts and feelings. Ask where, how, and what, this teaches children to think through their emotional states and attach names to their feelings.
Even children who seem resilient after disasters need some type of intervention. Just because it seems they’ve bounced back does not mean they aren’t vulnerable and suffering from grief. A well-timed and carefully applied intervention allows adults to gauge the levels of trauma in children and help them work through their feelings in mentally healthy ways.
Adults should remember that grief is highly personal and takes varying amounts of time to work through. A child who seems all right immediately after a disaster may break down weeks or even months later. Though the triggering tragedy has long passed, negative emotions may feel very fresh and hurtful. It’s important to not dismiss the grieving process no matter how long it takes.
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