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How to Recognize and Address Signs of Stress in Children After a Disaster


Children who have experienced a weather or man-made disaster often have similar reactions as adults. They may be afraid that the event will happen again or blame themselves. Even children who are well adjusted often find disasters or other traumatic events frightening. In many children, the signs of stress can be subtle even if the child is actually just as emotionally traumatized as the adults around him or her. The following information will help you understand when your child is stressed and what you can do to help.

Signs of stress in young children

Children don't always have the words or the willingness to express their emotions. Still, they may be fearful and retain disturbing memories for many years after a tornado, earthquake, or other disaster. Those kinds of natural disasters, along with something like a shooting or other "manmade" catastrophic events may leave a child feeling insecure and frightened without fully understanding what has happened. You may see the following signs of stress in your young child after a traumatic event:

  • irritability
  • crying more than usual
  • acting out parts of the event or disaster
  • difficulty sleeping and nightmares
  • lack of emotional expression
  • regressive behaviors (thumb-sucking or bedwetting, for example)

Signs of stress in school-age children and teenagers

As children grow older, they generally gain a more advanced understanding of the world around them. School-age children are better equipped to assess and understand disasters and what they've experienced following one. They are also more sophisticated in their responses. Even so, they are still subject to post-disaster stress that can manifest in a number of ways. If you notice these signs of stress in your older child following a disaster, don't ignore them:

  • preoccupation with the event
  • withdrawal from friends and favorite activities
  • sleep problems, headaches or nausea
  • inability to concentrate at school
  • guilt over what has happened, depression
  • risk-taking behaviors
  • fear of leaving home

What you can do to help your child

Children benefit from having a strong sense of security and they take comfort in predictable routines, especially during times of crisis. When a disaster happens, your child needs you more than ever to provide that comfort and security, which can also help to lesson your child's stress at scary time. Here are some simple ways you can help reassure and rebuild confidence in your child following a disaster:

Get back to a normal routine as soon as possible. If your child's daily routine has been interrupted, let him or her know that this is only temporary.

Provide extra physical reassurance, especially for younger children. Hugging or sitting close to read a book or play a game can help restore a child's sense of safety.

Be available as much as you can to talk with and comfort your child. Initiate conversations with open-ended questions and pay close attention to their words, gestures, and expressions when they respond.

Be aware of your own reactions. Children may be unsettled by a parent's strong reaction to a traumatic event. Remember that children often pick up on non-verbal behavior. Your child needs you to be a presence of calm and control at such a stressful time. When discussing the event among other adults, watch what you say in the presence of children that could be disturbing to them.

Limit media exposure. It's generally best to shield young children from graphic details and pictures on the Internet, on TV, and in other media. You may not be able to shield older children and teenagers from disturbing words or pictures, but you can watch or read the media coverage with them, talking with them about what you see and offering reassurances.

Resources

Most of the stress children and teenagers experience after a disaster is normal. However, when it begins to interfere with their regular routines, relationships, or physical well-being, it may be time to seek help, as prolonged or abnormal stress can lead to more serious negative behaviors or emotional problems. Visit the resources below to help your child find the help he or she needs to cope with stress following a disaster.
If you are especially concerned about your child's immediate emotional or physical well-being, don't "wait it out"-get help immediately from a professional such as your pediatrician, an adolescent medicine specialist, or a counselor.

  • Military OneSource can help provide you with further resources and help you connect with a counselor.
  • Military and Family Life Counselors are also available to provide non-medical counseling services and can be contacted through your installation Family Support Center.

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