How to Talk to Your Child About Disasters & When to Seek Help

Recent disasters, such as the wildfires in California, the Thousand Oaks shooting, and the shooting at a Pittsburgh Synagogue, can be very frightening for children.  Since children often see or hear about these events either through the different news outlets that are accessible to them or through their interactions outside the home, it can be helpful to talk about the event with them in language they can understand.

The following guidelines can be useful when having these conversations:

  • Try to set aside adequate time and a quiet space.
  • Use a tone that’s calm and language that’s not overwhelming.
  • Ask the child what he/she already knows and what questions he/she has.
  • Be honest as children are very aware of their parents’ concerns and know more than we think.
  • Talk about your worries as well as your abilities to keep your child safe.

In addition to having these conversations, it is also important to look for signs that your child might be struggling after a disaster.  There are different factors that can affect a child’s response to a disaster that can include:

  • The way they experience their parents’ response.
  • How close they are to the disaster/whether there was direct involvement
  • Whether they know anyone that was directly affected.
  • The child’s age.

Behavioral changes that might indicate your child is struggling and may benefit from being evaluated by a mental health professional include:

  • Acting out or misbehaving in school or at home that is atypical for the child.
  • Refusing to go to school or other places the child typically attended without a parent.
  • Fears that persist long after the disaster, jumpiness, nervousness, and a much heightened sensitivity or alertness to danger.
  • Avoidance of people, places, and things that remind the child of the incident.
  • Sleep disturbances or changes that were not occurring prior to the disaster, such as nightmares or bed-wetting.
  • Depressive symptoms that can include low or irritable mood, appetite changes, fatigue, withdrawal from friends and family, decreased interest in activities, feelings of hopelessness, and in some cases suicidal thoughts.
  • Physical symptoms in the absence of a physical injury or illness, such as headaches and stomachaches.
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