Help Children Cope With Post-storm Stress

Rebecca White, Gioe, Cheri M.  |  6/11/2005 1:38:06 AM

News Release Distributed 09/03/04 (Updated 09/02/05)

Although children, as well as adults, cope with stress every day, disasters, such as floods, hurricanes and tornadoes, often are somewhat different, says LSU AgCenter family life specialist Dr. Becky White.

"These types of catastrophic events are different from the ordinary stressful events like starting school, friends moving away, having a new baby in the house and so forth," White says. "That’s because things like storms and floods affect entire communities, and there is a lot of publicity about them.

"And, unlike some other stresses, they tend to make some adults afraid, too," she adds.

The LSU AgCenter expert says even children who have not been affected by a storm or flood may be afraid and worried that it will happen to them. That’s why adults need to help children understand and look at the situation as realistically as possible.

"The youngest children are usually worried because they don't understand what is happening," White explains, adding, "They can't always tell the difference between what is pretend and what is real."

Children who are a little older may be worried for different reasons, White says.

"In some cases, children are old enough to know the difference between what’s real and what’s not, but they don't yet understand the laws of probability," she explains. "They might be unrealistic in expecting the danger to reappear soon and often."

White and LSU AgCenter child-care associate Cheri Gioe say it’s hard to predict which children will be most affected and how.

They say after a disaster, some children may be restless, worried the disaster will happen again, afraid to be left alone or unable to sleep. They also may have nightmares, have symptoms of illness, be quiet and withdrawn, become upset easily, be prone to crying or whining, feel guilty that something they did caused the disaster, feel neglected because parents are busy trying to clean up and rebuild their lives and homes, refuse to go to school or to child-care arrangements.

Of course, children also may not show any signs of being upset, White points out.

"Some children may never show stress and may never feel any," she says, adding, however, "Others may not show it for several weeks or months later."

LSU AgCenter experts offers these tips on what parents and other adults can do to help children cope with such feelings:

–Talk openly about what is going on. Give simple, direct answers to questions. Children have radar. They know when adults are afraid or worried and not telling them the truth. They hear other adults talk. It doesn't help for adults to tell a child "not to worry," yet show all signs of worry themselves. Take time to talk openly, honestly and often.

–If the lights go out (a power outage) as a result of a storm, make a big deal about candlelight and how special it is. Do some fun, family things like playing board games, singing, making shadow pictures on the walls with your hands and so forth by candlelight, and discuss the differences between what it was like with the lights on versus the candlelight.

–Make a tent with a sheet and chairs, use a flashlight in it for light and pretend you are camping to pass the time and take everyone’s minds off the storm. Read favorite children’s books in the tent. Have a picnic in there as well.

–Listen to your child. Watch him or her at play. Often a child may express fear and anger when playing with dolls, trucks or friends after a major disaster. Acknowledge those feelings and encourage the child to talk. Teachers often can do this as well or better than parents, because their emotions are not as closely tied to the child's.

–Reassure your child, "We are together. We care about you. We will take care of you."

–Hold your child. Provide comfort. A warm hug from Mom or Dad is important for children during this period. Close contact helps assure children that you are there for them and will not abandon them.

–Help "act out" with books, art, toys and drama. Work with claydough, paint and water play. If children need something to kick or hit, give them something safe like a pillow, ball or balloon.

–Read factual books about weather and look at the pictures with your children. It gives the children a frame of reference and helps them handle the weather more matter of factly.

–In a classroom, use other children to help with coping. They can be helpful and understanding. They also can involve children at group time or in play activities.

–If your child lost a special toy or blanket, allow him or her to mourn and grieve (by crying perhaps). This is a part of helping a child cope with feelings about a disaster. In time, it may help to replace the lost object.

–Spend extra time putting your child to bed. Talk and offer assurance. Leave a nightlight on if that makes the child feel more secure.

If you need additional help for your child, White says to contact a community resource, such as your church, mental health agency, school counselor or your parish's LSU AgCenter Extension office.


Contact: Becky White at (225) 578-6701 or
Cheri Gioe at (225) 578-6701 or

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