Diane Sasser, Merrill, Thomas A.
Many children and young adults sustained both physical and emotional injuries from tragedies associated with the recent storm and the days that followed. It’s important to help them cope with those issues, says LSU AgCenter family development specialist Dr. Diane Sasser.
"Some of them may have lost friends, teachers or family members in this tragic event," Sasser says, adding, "Others may be separated from family and friends – or at least staying in a strange place."
It’s important for adults to set as positive a tone as possible during these times, the LSU AgCenter expert says.
"Children, especially the young, have a sixth sense that enables them to sense an adult's fear and anxiety," she points out. "As adults struggle to deal with their responses and grief, we must remember that children and adolescents will turn to us for help, answers and guidance."
Sasser says children learn their responses to loss and how they will cope from their family.
"Parents and teachers can help children and young adults avoid or overcome emotional reactions that may result following a tragedy by creating an open environment, being there ready to listen and answer questions and providing support," she explains. "How a parent or other adult reacts to a child following a loss, death or any traumatic event can aid – or hinder – his or her recovery process."
The LSU AgCenter expert says children and adolescents are at risk to experience fear and anxiety as reactions to tragic events.
"Following a disaster, the child's view of the world as a safe and predictable place is temporarily lost," she says. "They may fear that another event is likely to occur and that they or their family will be injured or killed.
"It helps to remind children that they are safe. Parents, teachers, caregivers, other adult family members can reassure children that they are safe and that the adults around them are doing everything they can to keep the children safe."
Children and adults alike who experience catastrophic events either in person or watching on television may demonstrate a wide range of reactions, according to Sasser and other experts.
"Many will experience fear and anxiety. Some may only worry or have bad memories of the event that will fade with emotional support and the passage of time," Sasser says, continuing, "Others can be more deeply affected and experience long-term problems."
The reactions common in children – fear, depression, withdrawal, anger, acting out – can occur immediately following the event or at any time later after the tragedy, according to the experts.
"Fear is a normal reaction to a scary event for children," Sasser says. "Children with vivid imaginations and sensitive children are even more prone to experiencing intense fear reactions."
She also points out that children younger than five years old cannot always distinguish fantasy from reality.
"Media depictions of disasters or tragedies can be as frightening as the real events," Sasser says, stressing, "Limiting media exposure in this age group is important."
Some children will demonstrate fear by developing physical symptoms – stomach aches, headaches, feeling "sick" or complaining of a lump in the throat. Some will express fear through their behavior such as crying, abnormal fussiness or agitation, not necessarily using words.
"Children may become fearful about being left alone," Sasser says, adding, "They may also demonstrate regression and begin acting younger than their age."
Some of the common behaviors of younger children that may reappear in older children as a result of tragedies or disasters are bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, clinging to parents and fear of strangers.
"Children may also have nightmares, not want to sleep alone, become more afraid of the dark or have trouble falling asleep or remaining asleep. In addition children can experience difficulty thinking and concentrating," Sasser says. "They also can become easily distracted, feel confused and disoriented and often find it difficult to stay focused."
The LSU AgCenter expert says many reactions can be triggered by smells, objects or activities that are associated with the trauma – although a child may not even be aware of the triggers or the behavioral changes that occur.
In addition to reactions from younger children, Sasser says adolescents also may change as a result of tragic events.
"Those who have started demonstrating some independence may shift and want to spend more time with their families," she said. "They may also be fatigued, have problems with sleep disturbances and show a lack of interest in favorite activities.
"It is important to be aware that adolescents, as well as adults, may turn to illicit substances – drugs or alcohol – as a way of coping with their intense emotions."
The LSU AgCenter expert says you can help children cope with crisis by:
–Offering reassurance. Let them know that you have plans to keep them safe and share those plans with them.
–Sharing facts about the event. Answer questions from a young child about the event as simply as possible. Do not go into as much detail as you would for an older child or adult.
–Encouraging children to talk about what they are feeling or to express themselves through paintings or drawings.
–Listening to their concerns without minimizing them or laughing at those concerns. Show that you understand the concerns and address the issues they raise.
–Assigning tasks. They will feel they are contributing to the situation if they are busy accomplishing tasks. This gives them a sense of control and order as well as helping them to feel that things are returning to normal.
–Spending extra time with them.
–Re-establishing daily routines for work, school, play, meals and rest.
–Understanding that children have a range of reactions to crises which is influenced by their ages, maturity and life experiences.
–Monitoring and limiting your family’s exposure to the media. Watching images of an event over and over can cause younger children to believe that the event is occurring again and again.
–Knowing when and how to get help for children who continue to suffer, take extreme risks, hurt themselves or threaten others.
For more general information on family life or a variety of issues related to hurricane and storm preparation and recovery, visit www.lsuagcenter.com.