During or after disasters, many families suffer from the onset of sudden stress. Such times may be particularly difficult for preschoolers who may not understand all that is going on around them. Whether a hurricane, tornado, or other stressful events, here are some suggestions for helping children cope, be better able to overcome obstacles, and become more resilient.
Calm your own fears first and reassure your children. As parents and caregivers, it is important to first calm your own fears before talking with your children. Children will react to your level of fear and anxiety. Children need to be reassured that their parents and caretakers have their family life under control. It’s important to maintain close contact with your children and provide physical comfort (e.g., hugs), as well as verbal reassurance (e.g., that you—their parents and caregivers—will keep them secure). Your children may be clingy or more in need of attention than at other times. That’s OK. Try to spend time with them and be reassuring about your presence and their safety. Explain that they are safe with you and that good people are in charge. Spend time together engaged in soothing activities such as holding hands, taking a walk, or sharing a cup of hot chocolate.
Listen to your children in each and every way. Your children may express their feelings through actions rather than words. For example, children may develop a new fear of loud noises, be less interested in playing with other children, or develop stomachaches and headaches. Fear, loss, anger and sadness are all normal reactions for children living through times of stress. Is important to validate children’s feelings and help them develop constructive ways of expressing such emotions. Remember that all children are different and that your goal is to be patient, understanding, reassuring, and accepting.
Try to keep a normal routine. Children feel secure when life is as stable and predictable. To the degree possible, stick to your usual schedules and routines, allowing some flexibility (e.g., it’s fine to spend a little extra time tucking your child in at bedtime). This will help children to keep calm and maintain their sense of safety. Allow children to participate in the activities that they have always enjoyed with the people they cherish. Talking to your child’s teacher, friends, and neighbors may help you plan how to make such routine possible.
Promote positive action. Discuss activities you can do together to feel better. There are many activities that children can do that help them express their emotions as well as help them readjust. You can suggest that your children write a story about what happened, draw a picture, play with clay or playdough, engage in a physical activity, read a favorite story, put on favorite music and dance, and volunteer and contribute in the neighborhood. Allow children choices and decision-making power in these activities so that they can maintain a sense of control and foster comfort in their immediate environment.
Connect with others. Ensure that children receive affection and attention, not just by those in their immediate home, but by extended family, friends, and neighbors. This is the time to reach out to others with visits, phone calls, and letters.