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Natural Disasters - Stress, Children, and Coping

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  • Synopsis: Published: 2012-04-30 (Rev. 2016-01-14) - Information for families on coping with anxiety and stress in the aftermath of natural disasters. For further information pertaining to this article contact: Wendy Taormina-Weiss at Disabled World.

Definition: Natural Disasters

Natural Disasters - The effect of earths natural hazards, for example flood, tornado, hurricane, volcanic eruption, earthquake, heatwave, or landslide. They can lead to financial, environmental or human losses. The resulting loss depends on the vulnerability of the affected population to resist the hazard, also called their resilience.

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"One major difference in the reactions of children and adults to a disaster is that children have little experience to help them place their situation into some kind of perspective."

The state of Colorado near the town of Lamar, as well as other locations in America, have recently experienced very damaging tornadoes. Before these tornadoes hit in Colorado, my husband and I watched the approach of these storms in the form of strong thunderstorms on the outskirts of Colorado Springs. The lightning in the eastern night sky lit up the entire city repeatedly, while the thunder shook the windows.

One person in Lamar stated his family was fast asleep at around 2:30 in the morning when the tornado hit. He said he heard a loud crunching sound and woke up in just enough time to witness the roof of their house being torn off. It is difficult to imagine the fear and stress this family experienced as a result of this natural disaster.

If you and your family members or friends have experienced a natural disaster, you are most likely attempting to make some kind of sense out of what happened, and trying to deal with the stress related to it. Natural disasters create an incredible amount of anxiety and stress for people who experience them. In the days and weeks after a natural disaster, people can experience a number of reactions to include:

  • Disorientation
  • Shock and disbelief
  • Anger and irritability
  • Sadness and depression
  • Feelings of powerlessness
  • Emotional numbing or apathy
  • Crying for, 'no apparent reason'
  • Increased use of drugs or alcohol
  • Anxiety and fear about the future
  • Trouble with falling asleep or sleeping
  • Trouble with making decisions or concentrating
  • Stomach problems, headaches, and back pains
  • Nightmares and reoccurring thoughts about the disaster
  • Loss of appetite, overeating, or changes in eating patterns

The experience of these various symptoms related to a natural disaster is considered to be, 'normal.' It is also vital for people who have experienced a natural disaster to deal with the stress because if they do not, it can be harmful to their mental and physical health. How do you cope with a natural disaster

Coping with a Natural Disaster

In Lamar and other southeastern Colorado towns, buildings were destroyed, right along with a lot of nerves. A total of five different tornadoes hit southern Colorado recently. How are people coping with the aftermath of these natural disasters? There are a number of ways to cope, to include the following.

Limit Your Exposure to Images of the Disaster: Reading or watching news about the disaster repeatedly only increases your stress level.

Talk About It: Talking with other people about the event can help to relieve the stress while helping you to realize that others are sharing your feelings.

Avoid Drinking and Drugs: Alcohol and drugs might seem to temporarily relieve stress, but in the long run they tend to create more problems that only compound the stress you are already experiencing.

Take Care of Yourself: Make sure you get plenty of rest and exercise. Eat appropriately, and if you drink coffee or smoke, try to limit the amount of these you consume because caffeine and nicotine can add to the stress you experience.

Pursue Activities You Enjoy: Watch a movie, read a book, go for a walk, or do something else you like and enjoy. Taking the time to pursue healthy activities can help to get your mind off of the disaster while keeping your stress in check.

Do One Thing at a Time: An ordinary work load can; for people under stress, seem unbearable. Choose one urgent task and work on it. After you have accomplished the task, move on to the next one. 'Checking-off,' tasks gives you a sense of accomplishment while making things feel less overwhelming.

Spend Time with Family Members and Friends: The people closest to you can help you through one of the toughest times in your life. If your family members live outside of your local area, contact them. If you have children - encourage them to share their feelings and concerns about the disaster.

Do Something Positive for Others: Donate blood, volunteer in a rebuilding effort, or make care packages for others who have lost family members, their homes, or their jobs. Helping other people can give you a sense of purpose during a time when you might feel that things are out of your control.

Do Not Hesitate to Ask for Help When You Need It: If the feelings you are experiencing do not go away, or become so intense they are interfering with your ability to function - talk with a family member, a friend, a doctor, or a spiritual adviser about getting help. Make an appointment with a mental health professional and discuss how you are coping with the disaster. You might also join a support group; just do not try to cope on your own. Asking for help when you need it is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign that you are human.

Children and Disaster-Related Anxiety

Children, much like adults, sense the tension and anxiety adults and other children around them are experiencing. Children experience the same feelings of helplessness and loss of control adults do when a disaster strikes. One major difference in the reactions of children and adults to a disaster is that children have little experience to help them place their situation into some kind of perspective.

Every child responds in a unique way to a disaster depending on their particular understanding and maturity. It is easy to comprehend how a natural or other type of disaster can create intense anxiety in children from every age group because they will interpret the event as a personal danger to not only themselves, but the people they care about most. No matter what age the child is, or their relationship to the damages caused by the disaster, it is important for you to be open about the consequences of it for your family and to encourage your child to talk about it. It is important for parents to:

  • Be honest and open about the disaster
  • Do your best to maintain your daily routine
  • Encourage your children to express their feelings through talking, drawing, or playing

Remember that children need comforting, as well as frequent reassurance that they are safe. Make sure they understand they are now safe. Parents also need to understand that children from different age groups will experience different needs, as well as requiring different responses from their parents after a disaster.

Pre-School Age Children and Disasters

Pre-school age children might exhibit behaviors such as thumb sucking, bed-wetting, 'baby talking,' or be afraid to sleep alone after a natural or other disaster. Children from this age group might complain of stomach cramps or headaches and may be hesitant to go to school. It is important for parents to understand that their children are not misbehaving; they are simply afraid. Parents can help their children who are in this age group to cope with their fears by:

Reassuring Them That They Are Safe: Parents can provide their children with extra contact and comfort. They can discuss the fears their children are having at night, call them during the day, and provide them with extra hugs and physical comforting.

Gaining a Better Understanding of Their Child's Feelings About the Disaster: Parents can talk about the disaster with their children to find out what particular fears and concerns their children have. It is important for parents to answer all of the questions their children might ask while providing them with comfort and care. Parents can work to structure their children's playtime so it remains constructive and serves as a form of outlet while providing them with the opportunity to express feelings such as fear or anger.

Grade School Age Children and Disasters

Grade school age children might ask a number of questions about the disaster they have experienced. It is important for parents to answer them clearly and in simple language. If a child is concerned about a parent who is experiencing stress telling the child not to worry will only make them worry more. Parents need to remember several things about grade school age children who have experienced a disaster.

Nighttime Fears: A child's fears are many times worse around bedtime. Parents might want to stay by their children until they fall asleep to make them feel safe and protected.

Monitor Your Children's Media Viewing: Images of the disaster and the damages are very frightening to children. Parents need to consider limiting the amount of media coverage their children see. One way to accomplish this is to pursue a regular schedule of activities such as movies, story reading, letter writing, or drawing during the time the news is on.

Allow Your Children to Express Themselves Through Drawing or Playing: School age children sometimes find comfort by expressing themselves through drawing scenes of the disaster or playing games; let them do it, and then talk about it. Doing so gives parents the opportunity to re-tell the end of the story or game their children have expressed through pictures with an emphasis on personal safety.

Do Not Be Afraid To Tell Your Child, 'I Do Not Know': A part of being open and honest in discussing a disaster is the ability to say to your children that you do not know the answer to their question. When this happens, explain to your children that disasters are very rare and cause feelings that even adults have trouble dealing with. Explain to them that despite this, adults will always work hard to keep them safe and secure.

False Reassurance Does Not Help Children In This Age Group: Parents should not tell their children in this age group that a disaster will never affect their family again because their children know it is not true. Instead, parents should tell their children they are safe now and that they will always try to protect them. Parents should tell their school age children that adults are working hard to make things safe, and remind them that disasters are rare.

Teenagers and Disasters

Parents of teenagers who have experienced a natural or other type of disaster can encourage them to work out their concerns. Teenagers might attempt to, 'down-play,' their concerns or worries. It is always a good idea to keep communication open and honest in relation to the physical, emotional, and financial impact of the disaster on the family. When a teenager is frightened they might express their fear by acting out, or regressing to habits they had when they were younger.

Parents can monitor their teenager's exposure to media coverage of the disaster, as well as information they get through the Internet. Teenagers might turn to friends for support, although it is important for parents to encourage friends and family members to get together and talk about the disaster to ease everyone's fears. Teenagers who experience existing mental health issues such as depression might need additional support and supervision.

The tornadoes in Colorado are far from the only natural disasters America has experienced. Every year in this state, fire season finds people facing the potential for further disasters. Other states in this nation experience flooding, tornadoes, fires, hurricanes, earthquakes and more. Understanding how to cope with the stress of experiencing a disaster is important, particularly in relation to the children in our lives.



Related:

  1. Assisting Seniors During Natural Disasters - Emergency response plans must take into account the age-related needs of the elderly with regards to personal and social resources.
  2. Seniors and Federal Disaster Assistance - Disaster survivors accepting Commonwealth and federal disaster assistance grants will not cause loss of Social Security benefits additional income taxes or change eligibility for income-based benefit programs.
  3. Helping Children Prepare for Disasters - Preparing children for disasters resources for parents and teachers that can be used in the classroom or home.

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