Friday, September 25, 2009
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Disaster or death: a guide to meeting the needs of children after traumatic events

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[September 25, 2009]  Children are often overlooked, or adults just don't know what to do, but children can be significantly affected when a traumatic event has occurred. In light of recent events, the EF3 tornado that tracked across the entire width of Logan County on Aug. 19 and brushed the community of Beason, and this week's homicide, some children may be experience some difficulty.

InsuranceHere is some specific information on what to watch for and what to do following a trauma of any type. The information is divided by age groups and offers practical insight for parents and other adults wanting to understand, support and assist children who are dealing with the stress and fears that arise after traumatic events, whether as a result of natural or man-made disaster or a violent death in the community.

Rebecca Van Nydeggen, director of the Logan County Salvation Army, provided the following resource information that may be helpful:

Reaction of children to a disaster

How do children typically react to disasters?

Many feelings and reactions are shared by people of all ages in response to a disaster. However, special attention is required to meet the needs of children. Typical reactions for children of all ages include:

  • Fears of future disasters.

  • Loss of interest in school.

  • Regressive behavior.

  • Sleep disturbances and night terrors.

  • Fears of events associated with disaster.

What are some age-specific responses?

Preschool (ages 1-5): Children in this age group are particularly vulnerable to disruption of their previously secure world. Because they generally lack the verbal and conceptual skills necessary to cope effectively with sudden stress by themselves, they look to family members for comfort. Abandonment is a major fear in this age group, and children who have lost family members, and even pets or toys, will need special reassurance.

Typical responses include:

  • Thumb-sucking.

  • Bed-wetting.

  • Fears of the darkness or of animals.

  • Clinging to parents.

  • Night terrors.

  • Loss of bladder or bowel control, constipation.

  • Speech difficulties, such as stammering.

  • Loss or increase of appetite.

Some things that may be helpful are:

  • Encourage expression through play re-enactment.

  • Provide verbal reassurance and physical comforting.

  • Give frequent attention.

  • Encourage expression regarding loss of pets or toys.

  • Plan calming, comforting pre-bedtime activities.

  • Allow short-term changes in sleep arrangements, such as allowing children to sleep with a light on or with the door open, or on a mattress in the parents' or another child's room, or adults remaining with the child while the child falls asleep.


Early childhood (ages 5-11): Regressive behavior is most typical of this group. Loss of pets or prize objects is particularly difficult for them to handle.

Typical responses include:

  • Irritability.

  • Whining.

  • Clinging.

  • Aggressive behavior at home or school.

  • Overt competition with younger siblings for parents' attention.

  • Night terrors, nightmares, fear of darkness.

  • School avoidance.

  • Withdrawal from peers.

  • Loss of interest and poor concentration in school.

Some things that are helpful are:

  • Patience and tolerance.

  • Play sessions with adults and peers.

  • Discussions with adults and peers.

  • Relaxation of expectations at school or at home (with a clear understanding that this is temporary and the normal routine will be resumed after a suitable period).

  • Opportunities for structured but not demanding chores and responsibilities at home.

  • Rehearsal of safety measures to be taken in future disasters.

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Pre-adolescent (ages 11-14): Peer reactions are especially significant in this age group. The child needs to feel that his or her fears are both appropriate and shared by others. Responses should be aimed at lessening tensions and anxieties and possible guilt feelings.

Typical responses include:

  • Sleep disturbance, appetite disturbance.

  • Rebellion in the home.

  • Refusal to do chores.

  • School problems, such as fighting, withdrawal, loss of interest, attention-seeking behavior.

  • Physical problems, such as headaches, vague aches and pains, skin eruptions, bowel problems, psychosomatic complaints.

  • Loss of interest in peer social activities.

Some things that may be helpful are:

  • Group activities geared toward the resumption of routines.

  • Involvement in activities with the same age group.

  • Group discussions geared toward relieving the disaster and rehearsing appropriate behavior for future disasters.

  • Structured but undemanding responsibilities.

  • Temporarily relaxed expectations of performance at school or at home.

  • Additional individual attention and consideration.

Adolescent (ages 14-18): Most of the activities and interests of the adolescent are focused in his or her own age group peers. They tend to be especially distressed by the disruption of their peer group activities and the lack of access to full adult responsibilities in community efforts.

Typical responses include:

  • Psychosomatic symptoms, such as rashes, bowel problems, asthma.

  • Headaches and tension.

  • Appetite and sleep disturbance.

  • Hypochondriasis.

  • Amenorrhea or dysmenorrhea.

  • Agitation or decrease in energy level.

  • Apathy.

  • Irresponsible or delinquent behavior.

  • Decline in emancipatory struggles over parental control.

  • Poor concentration.

Some things that might be helpful are:

  • Encourage participation in the community rehabilitation or reclamation work.

  • Encourage resumption of social activities, athletics, clubs, etc.

  • Encourage discussion of disaster experiences with peers, extended family members, significant others.

  • Temporarily reduce expectations for level of school and general performance.

  • Encourage, but do not insist upon, discussion of disaster fears within the family setting.

[Text from file received from Rebecca Van Nydeggen; LDN]


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