Helping Children Handle Disaster-Related Anxiety
September 13, 2001
New York - The National Mental Health Association released this statement
on Wednesday about how parents and healthcare professionals can help
children of all ages recover from disaster-related anxiety.
Children sense the anxiety and tension in adults around them. And, like
adults, children experience the same feelings of helplessness and lack of
control that disasters can bring about. Unlike adults, however, children
have little experience to help them place their current problems into
Each child responds differently to disasters, depending on his or her
understanding and maturity, but it's easy to see how an event like this can
create a great deal of anxiety in children of all ages because they will
interpret the disaster as a personal danger to themselves and those they
Whatever the child's age or relationship to the damage caused by
disaster, it's important that you be open about the consequences for your
family, and that you encourage him or her to talk about it.
Children need comforting and frequent reassurance that they're safe -- make
sure they get it.
honest and open about the disaster, but keep information age-appropriate.
Encourage children to express their feelings through talking, drawing or
4. Try to
maintain your daily routines as much as possible.
Preschool Age Children
Behavior such as bed-wetting, thumb sucking, baby talk, or a fear of
sleeping alone may intensify in some younger children, or reappear in
children who had previously outgrown them. They may complain of very real
stomach cramps or headaches, and be reluctant to go to school. It's
important to remember that these children are not "being bad" --
they're afraid. Here are some suggestions to help them cope with their
Reassure young children that they're safe. Provide extra comfort and contact
by discussing the child's fears at night, by telephoning during the day and
with extra physical comforting.
2. Get a
better understanding of a child's feelings about the disaster. Discuss the
disaster with them and find out each child's particular fears and concerns.
Answer all questions they may ask and provide them loving comfort and care.
You can work to structure children's play so that it remains constructive,
serving as an outlet for them to express fear or anger.
Grade-School Age Children
Children this age may ask many questions about the disaster, and it's
important that you try to answer them in clear and simple language.
Here are several important things to remember with school-age children:
If a child is concerned about a parent who is distressed, don't tell a child
not to worry -- doing so will just make him or her worry more.
False reassurance does not help this age group. Don't say disasters will
never affect your family again; children will know this isn't true. Instead,
say "You're safe now and I'll always try to protect you," or
"Adults are working very hard to make things safe." Remind
children that disasters are very rare. Children's fears often get worse
around bedtime, so you might want to stick around until the child falls
asleep in order to make him or her feel protected.
Monitor children's media viewing. Images of the disaster and the damage are
extremely frightening to children, so consider limiting the amount of media
coverage they see. A good way to do this without calling attention to your
own concern is to regularly schedule an activity -- story reading, drawing,
movies, or letter writing, for example -- during news shows.
Allow them to express themselves through play or drawing. As with younger
children, school-age children sometimes find comfort in expressing
themselves through playing games or drawing scenes of the disaster. Allowing
them to do so, and then talking about it, gives you the chance to
"re-tell" the ending of the game or the story they have expressed
in pictures with an emphasis on personal safety.
be afraid to say "I don't know." Part of keeping discussion of the
disaster open and honest is not being afraid to say you don't know how to
answer a child's question. When such an occasion arises, explain to your
child that disasters are extremely rare, and they cause feelings that even
adults have trouble dealing with. Temper this by explaining that, even so,
adults will always work very hard to keep children safe and secure.
Encourage older youth to work out their concerns about the disaster.
Adolescents may try to down-play their worries. It is generally a good idea
to talk about these issues, keeping the lines of communication open and
remaining honest about the financial, physical and emotional impact of the
disaster on your family. When adolescents are frightened, they may express
their fear through acting out or regressing to younger habits.
Children with existing emotional problems such as depression may require
careful supervision and additional support.
Monitor their media exposure to the event and information they receive on
Adolescents may turn to their friends for support. Encourage friends and
families to get together and discuss the event to allay fears.
For more information, call the National Mental Health Association at
1-800-969-6642 or visit the NMHA Web site at http://www.nmha.org