When disaster strikes—such as a hurricane—be up-front with your children about what’s going on. It’s best if they hear the details from you. Ask them what they’ve already heard, and then start the conversation from there.
Don’t be afraid to show emotion, such as crying, but shield intense reactions from your kids. Seeing you screaming or kicking a wall can add to the stress of the situation.
Long-term impacts of stress
Excessive or prolonged exposure to stress in childhood and adolescence is harmful to healthy childhood development. Trauma can follow you for a lifetime, but not every child who experiences trauma now will have problems down the road.
Stress hormones can lead to inflammation, which raises the risk of developing chronic diseases, such as heart disease.
Stress also causes problems indirectly. Children who experience high stress levels are at increased risk for being overweight, having disrupted sleep or smoking – all of which can lead to health problems.
One of the biggest predictors of how a child will do after a crisis, is how well the parents cope with their stress. If they appear overly distressed, without effective coping, there's a greater chance their children will have problems.
There are steps parents can take to limit the potential for damage.
Talk to kids honestly
Adults need to talk to children calmly, and with honesty. It's not that parents and caregivers can't be stressed or distressed or worried or scared or angry or any of those thing. The question is, how do I cope with the feeling? Do I melt down and look at the world as a completely dangerous place? Or do I say, 'OK, here's the things that we're going to do to make sure we stay as safe and healthy as possible?
Whether your children are in kindergarten or college, parents need to reach out and talk about what is happening, including asking about their feelings. If a child says, 'I'm really scared' or 'I'm really angry,' as an adult, it's up to us to validate that.
Stick to a routine
Sticking to a routine can help children. Amidst chaos and change, routines reassure children that life will be okay again. Try to have regular mealtimes and bedtimes. If you're temporarily relocated, establish new routines. And stick with the same family rules, such as ones about good behavior.
Restrict or monitor media
While tragedies have always been a part of life, technology has made it easier than ever for kids to learn about bad things that are happening all over the world. If your instinct as a parent is to shelter them from all that’s grim, that’s understandable—but of course it’s impossible.
Even if you limit your children’s exposure to media, older kids and teenagers are bound to see news coverage through social media on their cellphones and computers. With younger kids, though, you can—and should—keep them away from the disturbing footage that comes from news reports.
Instead, talk to them about what has happened without exposing them to frightening sights and sounds.
Even young children should be given honest and accurate information about the event, but keep it basic and avoid going into too much detail. Help them understand why people are talking about this tragedy and let them know that it’s OK to be sad. Reassure them that you are there to support them.
Older kids will probably know more about the event, and they might want to talk about why it happened or how it can be prevented in the future. Keep the lines of communication open and answer any questions they have. If they’re interested in helping, encourage them to write letters of thanks to the first responders or prepare care packages for the survivors.
Encourage kids to help others
Finding a way to help other people can be a powerful step in coping and resilience. It may be as simple as chalk art, so when people take a walk, they see a happy message, or sending a card or letter to essential workers. It helps to find ways to connect with people and to do things they love.
Encouraging children to write in a journal helps get their thoughts out.
Is my child struggling?
Some children might have difficulty coping when hearing bad news. Here are some signs to watch for:
Sleep issues. This includes trouble falling asleep, nightmares, and difficulty waking up.
Changes in behavior. Kids may become clingy or regress—that is, go back to acting as if they’re in a developmental stage they’ve already passed—with behaviors like thumb sucking and bed wetting. Teenagers may try drinking or smoking.
Mental health problems. Overwhelming sadness, depression, or anxiety could pop up.
Physical complaints. Physical ailments might include headaches, loss of appetite, and feeling more tired than usual.
Not all children will react immediately, so it’s possible that these signs might appear months after the event. If you have any questions about whether your child is having trouble dealing with scary news or how to help, talk with your child’s pediatrician.
Remember, you can’t change the bad things that happen in the world, but you can influence how your children cope with them.