Thursday, January 21, 2010

Tips to Help a Child Through a Catastrophe

NOTE FROM SUSAN: The media is all around us, and children are no longer sheltered from catastrophic events, such as the earthquake in Haiti, the hurricane in New Orleans, and landslides in California. Children naturally become fearful that they will also experience a similar crisis. Child psychologist Charlotte Reznick has some excellent advice for parents about how to handle children’s reactions to disasters.

Tips to Help a Child Through a Catastrophe
By Charlotte Reznick, PhD
Adapted from her book, The Power of Your Child’s Imagination

The emotional effects of a large-scale crisis or disaster, such as earthquakes, riots, and terrorist events, on children can be tremendous. One of the difficulties experienced by parents is that they have not had adequate time to deal with their own reactions when they are called upon to deal with the impact of the disaster or crisis on their child.

Emotional reactions vary in nature and severity from child to child. Children’s reactions to a disaster are determined by their age, previous experiences, temperament and personality, and the immediacy of the disaster to their own lives. Parents need to be aware that children feel especially helpless when they see horrific images on TV, such as homeless, injured, or orphaned Haitian children following the earthquake. Kids also absorb worry and sadness from their parents, or from classmates who have family ties in Haiti.

Here are some tips for parents to help kids comprehend and deal with such a catastrophe.

• Talk to your children and provide simple, accurate information to questions. Allow them to tell and draw their stories about what happened.

• Talk with your children about your own feelings.

• Listen to what your children say and how they say it. Try to acknowledge the underlying feelings in their words and their actions. For example: “I can see it makes you sad to think about all the people who were hurt by this earthquake.” This helps both you and the children clarify feelings.

• Reassure your child: “We are together. We are safe. We will take care of you.”

• Be honest and don’t deny the seriousness of the situation. Saying to a child: “Don’t cry, everything will be okay,” does not reflect how the child feels and the child knows that, at least in the immediate future, this is not true.

• Respond to repeated questions. You may need to repeat information and reassurances many times.

• Hold your child. Touching is especially important for children when they are distressed.

• Spend extra time with your child and when putting him/her to bed. Talk and offer assurance. Leave the night light on if necessary.

• Observe your child at play. Listen to what she says and how she plays. Frequently, children express feelings of fear or anger while playing with dolls, trucks, or friends.

• Have your child imagine not only how it “feels” to be safe, but what it looks like, what sounds she hears, what smells she detects. Evoking as many senses as possible will make the experience seem real.

• Provide play, art, and writing games to relieve tension. You can have him act out, draw, or write out a positive outcome for the situation.

• Plan something practical that your child can do to help (do a pennies fundraiser at school or draw a picture memorializing a person who may have died).

Resolving all of the feelings related to the disaster may take your child (and you) quite a while. It is normal for a child to bring up the crisis long after it has happened and when you least expect it.

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Charlotte Reznick, PhD, is a child educational psychologist, an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at UCLA, and author of the LA Times bestselling book, The Power of Your Child’s Imagination: How to Transform Stress and Anxiety into Joy and Success (Perigee/Penguin, 2009). In addition to her private practice, she creates therapeutic relaxation CDs for children, teens, and parents, and teaches workshops internationally on the healing power of children’s imagination. You can find out more about her at


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