Strategies for Helping Youth Cope with Reminders of Disaster

Diane Sasser, Hebert, Lanette G., Fox, Janet E.  |  9/9/2005 10:06:47 PM


Often the anniversary date of any disaster or trauma becomes a reminder of or reliving the crisis. Children recollect those fears sometimes, being most afraid that the event will recur, that they or someone they love will be hurt or killed, that they may be separated from those they love and be left alone. It’s important that caregivers use the following strategies to help youth cope with the reminders of disasters:

Provide reassurance.
Children need to be reassured that they are safe now and they are loved. They should also be told that the anniversary celebration or dedication is designed as a tribute, not a signal that the crisis will recur. The importance of touch cannot be understated. A hug or pat on the back is important to reassuring a child.

Being upset is OK
Adults should let the children know that it is OK to be upset. They need to understand that it is normal to feel sad or unsure when something bad happens. It is also normal not to feel strongly about people you don't know and therefore are not expected to feel the grief others do during a memorial.

Express feelings
Children should be encouraged to express their feelings about what has happened. Adults can help children put their feelings in perspective. When unable to express feelings, youth can use means such as drawing, writing and other forms of communication to tell about what they are thinking and feeling.

Provide facts
It’s important to be honest with children about what has occurred and provide facts about what has happened. Rumors often surface during and after a devastating situation. It’s important to talk about information only after it has been confirmed by reliable sources. Children under the age of 6 should not be exposed to the TV video coverage of disasters or traumatic situations, and the viewing time for older children should be limited. Adults should look for signs of repetitive play in which children reenact all or part of the disaster.

Observe reactions
Adults can provide opportunities and create an atmosphere in which children feel comfortable expressing concerns and ideas and asking for help if they need it.

Spend time with children
It’s important that positive role models spend time with the affected youth. Focus on having fun and taking time to enter the child's world. Positive role models can help build back a child’s world by helping the youth gain confidence.

Value opinions
Adults or other positive role models seek the child's opinions and ideas.

Adults should praise the child for doing well and trying hard. When complimenting the child, it’s good to let others hear the compliment.

Be careful with criticism
Adults should be careful with criticism or punishment because children might be acting out to get attention.

Be aware of regressive behavior
Regressive behavior such as thumb sucking, nail biting, night waking and bed wetting may occur in response to the trauma. Some children may need additional help from time to time. For those times, consider seeking outside assistance from community resources such as churches, counseling centers, school mentoring programs, recovery programs or community big brother/big sister programs.

Create opportunities for positive action
Instead of focusing on their situation, youth can create opportunities to serve others in their situation. After all, they know what is needed. The service can be simple, such as writing letters or sending condolences to the families or organizing a productive activity at school or a shelter.

These strategies will help a child deal positively with the disaster and improve the child's self esteem, behavioral habits and coping abilities while going through crisis.

Made available by:

Diane D. Sasser, Ph.D., Professor, Family Development; Janet Fox, Ph.D., Professor, Volunteer Development and Leadership; and Lanette Hebert, 4-H Coordinator, Southwest Region

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