Natural disasters are traumatic events for all of us but they can be especially frightening for children.
With Tuesday’s earthquake coming on the heels of such a devastating event as Hurricane Ivan, any new frightening experience can have an even bigger impact, says child psychologist Dr. Antonia Hawkins.
‘Not only might the child not really understand what happened but they don’t have the resources for coping with it that adults have,’ said Dr. Hawkins, a specialist at George Town Hospital.
‘When you experience aftershocks, even adults think, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s happening again.’ For kids, it’s even worse because in Cayman we’re not really taught about earthquakes. They don’t know what to expect and they don’t know what an aftershock is whereas at least adults have the benefit of a little more information.’
She said Tuesday’s quake may re-awaken or intensify any lingering fears children may have had after Ivan.
Common fears include worrying that it’s going to happen again, or that they or their family may be injured.
Children may also fear being alone or getting separated from the rest of the family. Dr. Hawkins said aftershocks of an earth-quake can amplify those worries.
She said parents sometimes ignore a child’s emotional needs once their physical safety is assured.
‘When the child continues to be fearful or show behaviour changes like aggressiveness or withdrawal – I’m getting a lot of reports of school anxiety, for instance – it can be very frustrating because it’s an added stress and parents don’t know how to deal with it.’
Reactions can vary from difficulty sleeping and increased dependency to irritability and appetite changes.
Mental Health Services offers some guidelines parents can follow to help children cope after a traumatic event:
. In the immediate aftermath, keep the family together. ‘This addresses the fear of being alone or abandoned,’ said Dr. Hawkins.
. Reassure children by words as well as actions. ‘We’re all together, we’re all OK and nothing has happened to us’ or ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.’
. Accept children’s feelings and reactions as normal. ‘Don’t ignore it or say get over it,’ said Dr. Hawkins. ‘Also, recognize that reactions can vary from child to child. For instance, some teenagers may become very dependent while others may try to avoid the family and spend a lot of time with their peers.’
. Encourage the child to talk about what happened. ‘When you do give the child the opportunity to do that, don’t minimize what they are feeling. Use age-appropriate language and get them to tell what they think happened because a lot of times kids will blame themselves for events. They’ll make connections you’d never dream of.’
. Include the child in family activities. ‘After an earthquake it might be, let’s walk around and see if everything’s OK. Include as much as is appropriate to their age level. Also, teach them how to be prepared should it come again.’ Knowing what to do and focusing on it can help.
. Be prepared for problems at bedtime, whether it’s difficulty falling asleep, waking up during the night, nightmares or needing to lie down with someone. Short-term solutions might mean allowing the child to move into a room with another child or to sleep on a mattress in the parents’ room. Spending extra time in the child’s room giving reassurance may also help.
. Re-establish regular routines as quickly as possible.
. Pay attention to the information your children have access to, whether it’s media or what other people are saying. “Children can be traumatized by other people’s fearful reactions. They’re going to look to you to know it’s OK,” said Dr. Hawkins.