When we are affected by a natural disaster or one occurs nearby - whether it is a fire, a tornado, a flood, or another disaster - we may need to offer special support to our children. Teenagers may have many confusing feelings; they may be worried and anxious. How do we help them cope? How do we give them the support they need? There are several steps you can take to support a teenager after a natural disaster.
Talking with your teenager after a natural disaster
Teenagers react to trauma in many of the same ways that adults do. The world may suddenly seem dangerous and unsafe. Your teenager may feel overwhelmed by intense emotions and may not understand how to cope with these feelings. Here is how you can help:
- Help your teenager talk about the event. Let him or her know that it's normal to feel worried or upset. Try to listen carefully.
- When you talk about the event, be honest and encourage them to be honest as well. Don't diminish the nature of the tragedy or dismiss your teenager's worries. Let your teenager share their feelings and concerns with you as honestly as they can.
- Try to be patient if your teenager asks the same questions again and again. Let your teenager talk as often as he or she needs to about the disaster. Talking about the event with you is a way for your teenager to unburden and gain control of feelings that follow a trauma.
- Talk with your teenager about your own feelings. Explain how the trauma or event is affecting you. Admit that you are saddened by what has happened, and show that you care. But don't burden your teenager with your fears and worries.
- Share your teenager's concerns and how you responded to them with other family members. It will help give a consistent message if everyone is delivering the same kinds of information. Remember, if your child told you something in confidence, then respect that and don't share that specific information.
- Reassure your teenager that your family and community are safe now and that events like these are rare. Help your teenager accurately assess the likelihood of this ever happening again.
Supporting your teenager through a trauma
- Remember that this may be the first time your child is experiencing grief. Expect your teenager to have many feelings - anger, sorrow, fear, confusion, and sometimes guilt if others have died. Assure your child that all of these feelings are normal.
- If there has been a previous loss, this may bring up old pain. Take the time to reflect with your teenager on how he or she has dealt with and recovered from prior losses. This helps increase their self-confidence and focus on what helped them cope previously.
- Your teenager may feel afraid and upset following the disaster. Your teenager may show fears in ways that he or she did as a child - by having night terrors, crying, or being overly fearful. These behaviors are normal. Try to be loving, patient, and understanding.
- Limit the amount of TV news coverage your teenager sees. Too much repeated coverage could just heighten your teenager's anxiety.
- Take the first step. Don't assume that just because your teenager hasn't said something about the event that he or she is okay and isn't affected by it. Sometimes teenagers are confused by a traumatic event, want to avoid talking about it, or are afraid to show their vulnerability. You may need to take the first step and bring up the subject.
- Help your teenager find comforting routines as a way to cope. Encourage your teenager to listen to music, do artwork, play basketball, or participate in other normal activities. This is a time to keep routines simple at home.
- You might suggest that your teenager keep a journal to record moods, thoughts, feelings, and worries. This can be helpful in coping with powerful emotions, disturbing thoughts, and feelings of grief. It can also be a concrete way to track the recovery process.
- Encourage your teenager to become involved as a way to overcome feelings of helplessness. Powerlessness is painful for adults and children. Being active in a campaign to help victims of the disaster can bring a sense of hope and control to everyone in the family.
- Encourage your teenager to stay connected with others. Many adolescents are wonderful about rallying together to help each other in times of need. Encourage your teenager to reach out to friends as well.
- Temporarily lower expectations of school and home performance. Your teenager's attention and emotional energy may be focused elsewhere for a few days or weeks.
- Encourage your teenager to talk with friends and with other adults about the event. This might be a teacher, school counselor, member of the clergy, or someone else from the community that your teenager feels close to and trusts.
- Try to be available for your teenager. It's very important that you give your teenager extra attention, patience, and support at this time.
Staying strong as a parent
Your own behavior is a powerful example for your teenager. How he or she copes with a traumatic event will depend to some measure on how you cope. It's important for you to stay strong so that you can support your child.
- Get enough sleep, eat well-balanced meals, and try to stick to regular routines.
- Seek support from others. Because you are also responding to trauma, it is very important to talk to other parents, friends, counselors, and other adults.
- Give yourself time to reflect on what happened. Stop long enough to know what you're thinking, how you're feeling, and how well you're coping. Get objective help from a mental health professional for yourself, and also to help you learn the best ways to deal with your teenager.
If fear continues
Usually, a teenager's reactions to a traumatic event do not last long. But sometimes fears can last and interfere with enjoyment of everyday life. Warning signs that this might be the case include the following:
- troubled sleep or frequent nightmares
- fear of going to school, going outside, or being left alone
- changes in behavior (unusual quietness, unresponsiveness, or tiredness)
- angry outbursts, acting-out behavior
- excessive clinging
- excessive crying
- headaches or stomachaches
- alcohol or drug abuse
- change in appetite (increased or decreased)
- loss of interest
- drop in grades
- isolation or spending more time alone than usual
- needing to be around other people all the time
If your teenager is experiencing any of these signs for a prolonged period of time or if the signs could put your teenager at risk, seek expert help. Your installation's Family Support Center or Military OneSource can provide additional resources and help you connect with a counselor.