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Health Team

How can parents help children cope with disasters?

Posted April 19, 2011 3:54 p.m. EDT
Updated April 19, 2011 7:34 p.m. EDT

— Tornadoes leave more than destruction in their path; they also leave fear and anxiety, especially in young children.

Dr. Melissa Johnson, a clinical psychologist at WakeMed, says children need honesty and reassurance from their parents to cope with the shaken sense of safety that might follow a natural disaster.

"A very simple explanation for a child of 4 or 5 is that there was a big, bad storm and the wind blew really fast, and it made the trees fall over," Johnson said. "(That) may be how you would explain it."

She added that it's essential for parents who suffered physical or emotional trauma to seek professional help first.

"Helping the family figure out how they can cope so that they can be stronger (and) be able to support the child is actually really critical," Johnson said.

Johnson suggested these tips for parents to help children cope:

- Ask children to tell the story of the storm in their own words, making sure they include the ending – when help arrived, houses were fixed, cars were replaced and injuries were healed.

- Make a storm plan. Pick the safest place in the house, away from windows, and practice a storm drill. The feelings of crisis will be lessened in children if they've practiced what to do.

- It's normal for children to experience irritability and changes in appetite or sleep patterns for a couple of weeks, but if they don't return to their usual behavior, contact a doctor.