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A mother comforting her child.

AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala.—Disasters are stressful for every person affected. Feelings of anxiety and grief are especially prevalent in children following a natural disaster, like a tornado.

Dr. Katrina Akande, a Human Development and Family Studies Extension Specialist, said there are many ways stress and grief can appear in children after a devastating event.

“Parents and teachers must work together as a team to support children through a life-changing event,” Akande said.  “Paying close attention children’s behaviors and watch for signs such irritability or difficulty concentrating on school work. Children may also have physical symptoms like an upset stomach or headache.”

Common Reactions

After a tornado children may experience a myriad of feelings, ranging from fear to guilt. It is not uncommon for children to have increased anxiety related to weather events or changes in behavior. Children may have an especially difficult time discussing details of the event. Parents and teachers should be observant and patient with children who have survived a disaster.

Children may ask questions such as, “Why did God do this?”

It is difficult for children to understand that sometimes bad things do happen to good people. Children could possibly have nightmares. They may also have triggers from loud sounds, trains, sirens, and smoke.

Akande wants families to understand that little ones will need extra care. To help manage stress, try to keep children involved in activities.

“Include them in the small efforts as the family starts to rebuild their life,” she said. “If this is not possible, consider including the child on a shopping trips to pick up supplies, clothing, or other items.”

He or she may be able to help with cleanup efforts or distribute items to families through churches or community organizations.

According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, changes in behavior include:

  • Increased activity level
  • Decreased concentration
  • Increased irritability
  • Withdrawal
  • Angry outbursts
  • Aggression
  • Changes in sleep or appetite
  • Increased sound sensitivity
  • Regressive behaviors

Helping Children Cope

Making time to have conversations about the tornado or other natural disaster can be helpful. Talk about ways the family and community are responding to what happened.

Realize that topics may need to be discussed more than one time. Remain flexible and willing to answer questions and provide clarification.

Akande said it is okay to admit to not having all of the answers.

“Let children know that you experienced anxiety and fear, too,” she said. “It is important for them to know that you are human and experience the same feelings.”

Continue to enforce family rules and keep routines for family meals. Doing things the family has always enjoyed, like attending church or going on outings, can also be helpful.

Additional Tips

Patience is key to helping children move forward after a disaster. Children may worry about friends, family or siblings. Bedtime may be scary and daunting. Try to spend time together reading a book before bed.

Always monitor adult conversations. Children may overhear and misinterpret, resulting in unnecessary uneasiness. Because children model adult behavior after a disaster, parents should try to model behavior that doesn’t provoke anxiety. This is difficult following a disaster, but will help children move forward in the wake of a storm.

Children worry about their parents. They may be reluctant to share their feelings. If children are concerned about worrying their parents, a trusted adult may be able to help children talk through their concerns. Pastoral counseling, guidance counseling and mental health counseling may be beneficial for children and the whole family.

Even in the most stressful situations, keep things hopeful. Identify positive aspects in family life and look forward to the future. A positive outlook is one way to help children see good things in their surroundings.

More Information

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network suggests seeking professional help if a child struggles for longer than 6 weeks. A list of available resources can be found in Dr. Akande’s publication Managing Stress: Guide for Understanding Stressful Situations.

For more information, contact a Human Sciences agent in your area. You may also visit www.aces.edu for more resources associated with dealing with stress after disasters.

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