Disasters can be finite or ongoing. They can be acts of nature such as a hurricane, flood or earthquake—or they can be acts of human violence such as a terrorist attack. As victims suffer from so much loss, even for those watching from afar, a sense of helplessness and panic can take hold.
Although many consider children to be more emotionally resilient than adults, multiple studies suggest they are at greater risk after disasters for lingering effects including anxiety, depression, and behavioral and learning problems. Children who are exposed to events through the media or overhearing adult conversations can show many of the same symptoms as those who experience disaster firsthand. As parents and school professionals talk to kids about traumatic news events, these strategies can empower students through knowledge while restoring a sense of calm.
Media coverage can provide valuable information and build empathy for affected populations. As the primary sources of accurate information, parents and educators should share facts as plainly as possible, while being mindful of age appropriateness and avoiding repeated exposure. Educators should communicate with families that instruction included watching coverage on Channel One News, so that parents can monitor further exposure.
As teachers wade into difficult topics, it is important not to re-traumatize students. Get to know your students, particularly whether they or their families have experienced such a trauma. Use opening activities to gauge background knowledge and inform how you proceed.
Class discussions should encourage an exploration of feelings. Parents play a crucial role in aiding recovery, however they are not always accurate judges of children’s experiences. One study found large discrepancies between parents’ accounts of what happened to their children during a hurricane and what their children recalled. Larger discrepancies correlated with greater signs of distress in children, suggesting that to aid in recovery, parents, caregivers and school professionals should start by listening to and validating children’s experiences.
Elementary school-age children might think that repeated coverage of the same event is actually multiple events or that more people have been affected. They might think that the event occurred close by. Use maps to emphasize for students the distance, and provide context for the scope of the event. Clarify misconceptions, but avoid lecturing.
Meanwhile, middle and high school students may want to explore the politics involved or participate in charitable work related to the event. Discuss strategies for problem solving after disasters.
Where possible, take a positive spin. Highlight the work of rescue workers and volunteers. As the often-shared Mr. Rogers quote goes, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Teachers might also want to share stories about how people overcame similar challenges in the past. Use picture books to help children learn lessons about resilience. Use non-fiction books to help students understand how communities have dealt with disasters in the past.
Narrative or journal writing can provide children with an outlet for their emotions. Writing responses may also help school professionals identify students who might need additional psychological support.
When disaster strikes, being prepared can decrease feelings of anxiety in adults, which contributes to calmer reactions in children. For viewing audiences, learning how to be prepared can instill a sense of control. Teachers can lead a lesson in disaster preparedness. At home, parents can practice a family emergency plan. Teachers can find lesson planning resources online at www.ready.gov/kids/educators. Parents can visit www.ready.gov/make-a-plan.
Personality, preexisting emotional or learning problems, and family stressors such as divorce, financial insecurity, illness or weak family bonds can determine whether a traumatic event will have a lingering effect. Parents, caregivers and school professionals can watch for warning signs such as persistent fearfulness that can manifest as clinginess and sleeping problems, heightened irritability, attention deficit, depression, social withdrawal, and even physical symptoms (such as headaches, stomach aches, and a lack of energy).
Disasters disrupt and destabilize. Studies suggest that children model their coping strategies on their parents’. While parental panic can inspire panic in children, a show of strength and confidence can make recovery more likely. The same principles go for caregivers and school professionals who serve as role models for children.
As parents and educators encourage discussion around these events, they should also work toward restoring stability by limiting children’s exposure to sensationalist news stories and by resuming familiar routines or creating new, comforting ones. A big part of recovery is recovering what was lost.
Stay tuned for a follow-up post about Preventing Bias and Hate in the Wake of Terrorism and War.