Talking about Disaster in the Wake of Irene

David Fassler, MD

Back to school season, typically a time of exciting new starts for children, has taken a blow in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, which along with catastrophic destruction in towns across the state of Vermont and region, has caused widespread school closings and delays. Parents and teachers may currently be faced with the challenge of explaining a local natural disaster to children. According to David Fassler, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont and a Burlington, Vt.-based child psychiatrist, “although these may be difficult conversations, they are also important, and there is no right or wrong way to talk with children about such tragic and scary events.”

“Devastating floods and other natural disasters are not easy for anyone to comprehend or accept, and understandably, many young children feel frightened and confused,” explains Fassler. “Fortunately, most children, even those exposed to trauma, are quite resilient. As parents, teachers and caring adults, we can best help by listening and responding in an honest, consistent and supportive manner and creating an open environment where they feel free to ask questions.”

Fassler offers the following suggestions for addressing the issue of natural disasters, such as flooding, with children:

  • Create an open and supportive environment where children know they can ask questions. At the same time, it’s best not to force children to talk about things unless and until they’re ready.
  • Give children honest answers and information. Children will usually know, or eventually find out, if you’re “making things up”. It may affect their ability to trust you or your reassurances in the future.
  • Use words and concepts children can understand. Gear your explanations to the child’s age, language, and developmental level.
  • Be prepared to repeat information and explanations several times.  Some information may be hard to accept or understand. Asking the same question over and over may also be a way for a child to ask for reassurance.
  • Acknowledge and validate the child’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Let them know that you think their questions and concerns are important and appropriate.
  • Remember that children tend to personalize situations. For example, they may worry about their own safety and the safety of immediate family members.
  • Help children find ways to express themselves.  Some children may not want to talk about their thoughts, feelings, or fears. They may be more comfortable drawing pictures, playing with toys, or writing stories or poems.
  • Let children know that lots of people are helping the families affected by the flooding.  It’s a good opportunity to show children that when something scary happens, there are people to help.
  • Children learn from watching their parents and teachers. They will be very interested in how you respond to local events. They also learn from listening to your conversations with other adults.
  • Don’t let children watch too much television with frightening images. The repetition of such scenes can be disturbing and confusing.
  • Children who have experienced trauma or losses in the past are particularly vulnerable to prolonged or intense reactions to news or images of natural disasters. These children may need extra support and attention.
  • Monitor for physical symptoms including headaches and stomachaches. Many children express anxiety through physical aches and pains. An increase in such symptoms without apparent medical cause may be a sign that a child is feeling anxious or overwhelmed.
  • Children who are preoccupied with questions or concerns about hurricanes, floods or other natural disasters should be evaluated by a trained and qualified mental health professional. Other signs that a child may need additional help include: ongoing sleep disturbances, intrusive thoughts or worries, recurring fears about death, leaving parents or going to school. If these behaviors persist, ask your child’s pediatrician, family physician or school counselor to help arrange an appropriate referral.

More information about children and natural disasters is available from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry .

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