Bob Owen  /  Zuma Press
Children in a crisis need lots of support. Tiffany Jennings, center, comforts Jadajsha Pollard, 3, on Thursday. Pollard, whose family from New Orleans is staying at a Red Cross Shelter in San Antonio, Texas, was also entertained by helper Mitchell Jennings, left.
By contributor
updated 9/7/2005 12:13:22 AM ET 2005-09-07T04:13:22

In the aftermath of a natural disaster such as Katrina, it’s almost too painful to even consider the impact on children. Of course, this is exactly what any parent wonders: How will the children of New Orleans and surrounding areas hit by the hurricane recover and what influence will news of the hurricane’s fury have on the children watching around the country?

For the concerned children watching, the key to handling this and other traumatic news events is for parents to spend time helping them understand, experts say. Of course, kids shouldn’t be glued to the television watching hours of news coverage but you must assume that most children will hear or see something about the hurricane and will have questions.

“A lot of little kids have been watching this on television and it’s what the kids don’t know that will hurt them. When they don’t know the complete story they tend to fantasize even worse versions than reality,” says Robert R. Butterworth, a Los Angeles-based psychologist who specializes in trauma.

He notes that many children aren’t geographically sophisticated enough to know where the disaster even occurred. They may imagine it happened down the street and they’re in imminent danger even if you’re thousands of miles away.

“It’s important for parents to tell kids that it was bad and it happened there but it’s not going to happen to them,” says Butterworth. “You need to ask them ‘What do you think about what happened?’ Let them talk.”

Encourage kids everywhere to help
Kids old enough to host a bake sale or collect money — even nickels and pennies — to donate to the Red Cross, for example, should be encouraged to do so.

“Doing something to help will make them feel important and useful,” says Butterworth.

Remember, too, that we all live in regions where some kind of disaster can occur. Hurricane Katrina may have your children thinking about tornadoes or earthquakes in your area. This is the perfect opportunity, says Butterworth, to go over disaster preparedness. “You need to tell your kids that you have a plan. ‘As a family, if we can’t go home, this is where we’ll go and this is what we’ll do,’” he says.

Others note that it’s also an opportunity to truly get your act together. “When I was listening to coverage about this beforehand I kept hearing about people getting prepared and being advised to have three days or even a week’s worth of supplies,” says David Sattler, a professor of psychology at Western Washington University who has researched survivors' psychological responses to natural disasters since Hurricane Hugo in 1989. “The recommendation really is that we should all have at least two weeks worth of supplies in our family emergency kit.”

Having food, water and first-aid supplies stocked away — even having a homeowner’s insurance or renter’s insurance policy — can serve as building blocks for mental stability and security, he says. Parents can point these items out to children.

Re-establish a routine
Of course, the children directly affected by Hurricane Katrina will have a much tougher challenge ahead. As their parents deal with figuring out their lives, psychologists say it’s most important to re-establish some kind of routine for children.

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“With disasters of this magnitude there is acute anxiety, confusion and not knowing what is going to happen next,” explains Sattler. “Things are so unpredictable but predictability is the key to regaining balance, especially for children.”

A routine, in fact, is far more important than regaining any material possessions, he says. The routine will obviously be somewhat altered depending on circumstances but adding back familiar activities big and small will help (i.e. getting back in school, reading bedtime stories, having meals together).

The children will need adults to help them understand in simple terms what’s happened and, most important, that things will eventually be OK. A first step, for example, may be telling them that the hurricane caused too much damage to go home but that they are welcome and safe where they’re staying.

Butterworth notes that there are two pillars to any child’s emotional strength — his physical world and the emotional stability of his parents. When the physical world has changed so drastically so quickly, children will rely even more heavily on their parents to cope. As difficult as it is for parents to remain calm and cool and focus on the tasks that need to be done, the more they do so the better off their children will be.

“If an adult is crying,” says Butterworth, “a child will be shaking.”

That’s not to suggest, however, that adults have to entirely cover up their feelings in times of crisis. If an adult breaks down in tears or shouts in anger, though, it’s helpful to explain to a child why and, again, try to reassure him that eventually life will even out.

Children will also feel better if they think something is being done to help their family. It’s beneficial to point out what the community, government or disaster assistance teams are doing (again, focus on the positive). If children have questions about the whereabouts of their friends, pets or possessions and you’re not sure, it’s best to tell them that. Stay away from offering worst-case speculations, though. The idea is to give truthful information but be age-appropriate and reassuring.

Let them be heard
It seems all but impossible for a parent of a disaster to be expected to be more available for their children and to listen and talk even more, but they must. It’s too easy to overlook little faces and tune out little voices in these times.

“It’s important for these children to be heard," says Sattler. "They must know that somebody is listening to them and that somebody cares."

Also, it’s common for children of traumatic events to become extremely clingy, have sleep disturbances, hyperactivity and other behavioral problems and even report anxiety-related physical ills such as stomachaches or headaches. Be patient, spend as much time together as possible but count on these symptoms taking weeks to subside. If they persist, though, it’s time to get professional help for the child. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a concern.

The only bright light in this scenario is to remember that our children are human. That doesn’t just mean that they’re vulnerable; it means they’re also strong.

“After working in disasters like these we started to ask people about resiliency and what they learned from their experiences,” says Sattler. “A significant number of people report that in time they do show resiliency. That means they begin to reprioritize their values and what they cherish. They start to appreciate relationships more and they appreciate small things in life more. They see their community pulling together and they realize how much this speaks to the strength of the human spirit.”

Children, he says, will also experience this.

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.

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