DES MOINES, Iowa - The stress and disruption caused by natural disaster may affect children more than anyone, according to mental health experts.
Parents should be alert to signs of trouble, and how to handle them.
For children ages 5 or younger, watch for such behaviors as: crying more frequently than usual, clinging, having nightmares, showing excessive fear of the dark, fear of animals, fear of being alone, changing appetites, speaking with difficulty, or returning to outgrown behaviors such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking.
Children ages 5-11 may exhibit increased irritability, aggression, and competing with their siblings for parental attention, or show anxiety through whining, withdrawal from their peers, and loss of interest in normal activities. Those 11-18 may show outright rebellion, physical problems, apathy, or sleep disturbance.
Those signs of anxiety often result from the losses, disruption to family life, and a sense of a hostile world created by a natural disaster. Disaster experts have developed a list of tips for helping children deal with disaster. The suggestions include:
Spend some time each day giving each child your undivided attention, even if just for a few minutes. Share experiences, reaffirm your love, make plans together, and just "be there" for each other.
Encourage them to talk. Encourage children to describe what they are feeling. Let them talk about the disaster and ask as many questions as they like. Listen to what they say. Assure them that the disaster was an act of nature and not caused by them. Include the entire family in the discussion, if possible.
Understand their fears. It is important that parents accept anxieties as being very real to children. Help them cope by getting them to understand what causes their anxieties and fears. Recognize their losses, such as their pets, favorite toys and other personal items. Reassure them with firmness and love that everything will be all right. Through your persistence, children will realize life will eventually return to normal. If a child does not respond to the above suggestions, seek help for them from a mental health professional.
Inform children. Every effort should be made to keep children informed about what is happening. Explanations should be in simple language. With children five or older, rehearse safety measures for use in case of future disasters.
Reassure them. Parents can help reassure children by telling them they are safe, holding and hugging them frequently, restoring normal routines, providing play experiences for them, and making bedtime a special moment of calm and comfort.
Encourage activities with their peers. As with adults, social time with friends is a very important part of the recovery process.
Temporarily lower expectations for them. Allow for the fact that stress from the disaster can show itself in many ways over a period of time, and make appropriate allowances.
Free counseling is available by calling the Iowa Concern Hotline at 1-800-447-1985, a call center operated by the Iowa State University Extension Service. Counselors take calls seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. An answering service is available during the remaining hours.
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Source: FEMA - FEMA coordinates the federal government's role in preparing for, preventing, mitigating the effects of, responding to, and recovering from all domestic disasters, whether natural or man-made, including acts of terror.