From time to time, a national disaster occurs that does not directly affect most children. The events of September 11, 2001 or Hurricane Katrina are recent examples among others. Even if not directly affected, children learn about the situation and recognize the concern that others feel. In such situations, we recommend a five-step approach for helping children. Parents should provide: reassurance, protection, discussion, perspective and action.
Reassurance: Parental love is the single most important source of comfort during times of danger. There is no substitute for hugs, hot cocoa, a game of Scrabble, parents' abundant physical presence and verbal reassurances.
Protection: 1. Control access to information: Children 6 years and younger (whom we will call "young children") cannot manage information about catastrophes without experiencing excessive anxiety. Although a challenging task, it is best if parents shield young children from scary information, including all radio and TV news. Children ages 7 through 12 years (whom we will call "school-age children") benefit from knowing basic information, but may also suffer excessive anxiety if exposed to overly detailed information or images. Teenagers should have full access to information and images, but require protection from media bombardment, which can increase anxiety for teenagers and adults alike.
2. Diminish family stress: Minimizing controllable stresses helps because children need all their emotional resources to manage a catastrophe. We advise parents to keep in mind that there is stress associated with any change - even when the change is positive. Parents can reduce controllable sources of family stress by deferring an elective surgery, a non-essential overnight business trip, or even the adoption of a pet.
3. Maintain parental emotional balance: Children's healthy emotional development requires a confidence in the safety of the world. Young and school-age children use their parent's reactions as a barometer of how worried or unsafe they should feel. Children feel safe when their parents feel safe. Therefore, parents must do their best, relying upon the people, faith and activities that help them reduce their own stress. That way, they'll be better able to convey confidence through their words, actions and feelings.
Discussion: 1. Words can help: Children use words to master emotions, information and images. Therefore, parents should encourage discussion. If young children learn some details of a catastrophe, parents should provide simple and reassuring explanations. For example, parents could tell a young child about Katrina: "Sometimes rains comes with a very strong wind. We call that a hurricane. The wind and rain can be so strong they break trees and houses. We almost never have hurricanes where we live, but if one was coming, the weatherman would tell us to drive away until the hurricane was over."
School-age children benefit from more detailed discussions. Parents should introduce the current events and encourage dialogues. A conversation starter might be: "You have heard about Katrina and the problems it has caused. Is there anything that you would like me to explain or talk about?"
2. Be respectful: Parents should respect children's views, even if those views differ from theirs. This is especially important during times of catastrophe because children bolster their sense control and security through independent thought. Parents should view every question as important, answering only after understanding their child's perspectives. Although there may not be an answer that will fully relieve children's anxiety about a catastrophe, parents should remain truthful. Parental untruthfulness can disrupt children's trust and sense of safety.
3. Take initiative: Just like many adults, many children avoid discussing scary topics. Also like adults, children older than 7 years benefit from varied and repeated discussions. Parents can initiate discussions of the catastrophe with school-age children and teenagers.
4. Support play: Many children, especially young children, use dramatic play to work through their understanding of a catastrophe, find satisfactory solutions and overcome worries. However, play can occasionally be counterproductive. For example, some children need protection from another child's play that is disturbing them. Children's play may become wild, agitating or compulsive. In such situations, play increases rather than reduces children's anxiety, and parents and teachers should redirect or limit the play.
Perspective: All catastrophes involve the unleashing of destructive forces, situations of helplessness and lack of control - all confrontations with the lack of guaranteed safety in the world. September 11th confronted children with humankind's destructiveness and Katrina with nature's destructiveness. School-age children begin to realize that parental protectiveness is limited and life is not fully controllable. Parents should help their children understand that their actions can provide reasonable control and safety for themselves, their loved ones and their community. By emphasizing and demonstrating how an individual can increase the stability and goodness in the world, parents can utilize catastrophes to support children's commitment to constructive moral action.
Action: Children develop the perspective that they are "safe enough" both on the basis of discussion and action. Constructive action supports children's sense of safety by enabling them to feel in control rather than passive and helpless. Furthermore, acts of generosity, empathy and charity enable children to put goodness and love into the world to counteract the destructive forces of the tragedy. Children will derive the most solace from action when they have contributed their own ideas and time. For example, sending pictures that they draw may be more meaningful than contributing financially to the Red Cross.
Our suggestions for helping children with catastrophes are as relevant months later as it is on the first day. Occasionally, children's symptoms remain significant six weeks or longer after a catastrophe and professional consultation should be considered in such a circumstance. However, most children who, if helped with their reactions in the ways we suggest, will grow in emotional strength as they overcome their concerns.
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