After the Storm: Helping Kids Deal

How to Address PTSD in Children after Severe Storms
by PLAN!T NOW Staff Writer Scott Walker

When natural disasters strike, parents’ first instinct is to ensure their children are physically safe. But don’t overlook the need to address potential psychological consequences for your children as well. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often occurs among children who have experienced natural catastrophes—and you can play a pivotal role in keeping the risks and symptoms at bay.

DON’T “prepare” children unnecessarily for danger: Of course you need to make sure that your child knows essential safety rules, such as not running into the street. But too much emphasis on possible threats can make children overly fearful, which is one of the driving factors behind PTSD. Instead, be very specific about certain dangerous situations when you discuss them, then don’t continue to harp on them.

DO give children something concrete to do in an emergency: PTSD stems from a sense of powerlessness in the face of danger. Explain to your child his or her role in the event of a strong storm—for example, running a tub of water or getting a flashlight from its place.

DON’T tell children the danger is over before you know it is: It’s understandable to want to reassure your child that all danger has passed, but if a setback occurs (such as a storm resurgence), your child may view that setback as a personal betrayal. Try to explain precisely what is being done to address dangers and describe what will happen once all threats have passed.

DO remain alert to changes in a child’s behavior after a disaster: You can spot telltale signs when your child is experiencing PTSD. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry lists these symptoms to watch for:

  • Refusal to return to school and “clinging” behavior, including shadowing the mother or father around the house
  • Persistent fears related to the catastrophe (such as fears about being permanently separated from parents)
  • Sleep disturbances such as nightmares, screaming during sleep and bedwetting, persisting more than several days after the event
  • Loss of concentration and irritability
  • Jumpiness or being startled easily
  • Behavior problems, for example, misbehaving in school or at home in ways that are not typical for the child
  • Physical complaints (stomachaches, headaches, dizziness) for which a physical cause cannot be found
  • Withdrawal from family and friends, sadness, listlessness, decreased activity, and preoccupation with the events of the disaster

DON’T try to manage your child’s PTSD symptoms on your own: PTSD is often so strong that parental soothing and support may not be enough to combat the problem. If you’re concerned about your child, you can ask your pediatrician or family doctor to refer your family to a child and adolescent psychiatrist for an evaluation.

Source: Some information for this article adapted from Protect Children from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in a Natural Disaster by Catherine Harrison, PhD. Used with permission of the author.

A Child Psychologist’s Quick-take on Kids and Severe Storms
Dr. Robin Gurwitch, Psychologist, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and an American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health volunteer since 1995

“Some worry that planning ahead will scare children when actually the opposite is true. It is crucial to plan ahead and include children in the planning. Plan how to re-connect if you become separated. Make sure young children know parents’ or caregivers’ names. A rescue worker can’t re-unite your family if your child only knows you as “Mommy”. If anything about the planning talk frightens a child, that is the time to address those feelings. Finally, different aged children have different needs. Never force a child to talk, let them guide the conversation even if that means accepting their silence on an issue. Listen to them and convey the message that it’s ok to talk about these storms.”