The emotional effects on children of a large-scale catastrophe or disaster, such as the recent earthquake in Haiti, can be tremendous. Even though this tragedy was not on our home turf, our children can feel especially helpless when they see images of homeless and injured Haitian children and orphans on the news. Kids also absorb worry and sadness from their parents, or from classmates who have family ties in Haiti.
One of the difficulties experienced by parents is that they have not had adequate time to deal with their own reactions when they are called upon to deal with the impact on their children. Emotional reactions vary in nature and severity from child to child. Their responses to a disaster are determined by age, previous experiences, temperament and personality, and the immediacy of the disaster to their own lives.
If you know a child who is showing signs of worry, stress, or fear that may be related to the Haitian earthquake and its aftermath – such as stomachaches, sleeplessness, bedwetting, or moodiness – I'd like to offer some ideas about how to help kids comprehend and deal with such a catastrophe.
Tips to Help a Child Cope
1. Talk to your children and provide simple, accurate information to questions.
2. Allow them to tell and draw their stories about what happened. Drawing is cathartic and helps release some of their inside upsets.
3. Talk with your children about your own feelings. Be brief; don’t overshare.
4. Listen to what your children say and how they say it. Try to acknowledge the underlying feelings in their words and their actions. For example: "I can see it makes you sad to think about all the people who were hurt by this earthquake." This helps both you and your child clarify feelings.
5. Reassure your child: "We are safe. We are together. We will take care of you."
6. Be honest and don't deny the seriousness of the situation. Saying to a child: "Don't cry, everything will be okay," does not reflect how the child feels and the truth is, at least in the immediate future, this is not accurate.
7. Respond to repeated questions. You may need to repeat information and reassurances many times.
8. Hold your child. Touching is especially important for children when they are distressed.
9. Spend extra time with your child and when putting him/her to bed. Talk and offer assurance. Leave the night-light on if necessary.
10. Observe your child at play. Listen to what she says and how she plays. Frequently children express feelings of fear or anger while playing with dolls, trucks, or friends.
11. Have your child imagine not only how it "feels" to be safe, but what it looks like, what sounds he hears, what smells he detects. Evoking as many senses as possible will make the experience seem real.
12. Provide play, art, and writing games to relieve tension. You can have him act out, draw, or write out a positive outcome for the situation. For example, imagining the countries of the world coming together helping to heal and rebuild Haiti.
13. Plan something practical that your child can do to help (as per the ideas below in How Kids Can Help Haiti).
Resolving all of the feelings related to this earthquake may take your child (and you) quite a while. It’s normal for a child to bring up the crisis long after it has happened and when you least expect it.
How Kids Can Help Haiti*
Take action. Giving unconditionally to strangers can help young ones feel empowered.
· Do a penny/nickel fundraiser for Haitian children. Have your child write a one-page letter asking classmates and neighbors for their extra pennies and nickels. These can quickly add up to $50 or $100.
· Donate your lunch money for a day. Get your child to ask everyone at school to bring in a bag lunch for one day, and donate that day's lunch money to a Haitian aid organization.
When the crisis has calmed, but donations are still needed:
· Throw a Wii tournament. Set up Wii bowling in someone's big family room, and charge everyone $5 to get in. The winner of the tournament gets $20 and the Haitian charities get the rest.
· Throw a skating party. Ask your local skating or roller rink if they would be willing to donate half of their profits for the day to Haitian earthquake victims. Tell them it's great PR. Get your kid and her friends to do a local public service announcement on the radio to advertise the event.
*Visit www.google.com/haitiearthquake, a good source for reliable charities
Charlotte Reznick PhD is a child educational psychologist, an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at UCLA, and author of the LA Times bestselling book The Power of Your Child's Imagination: How to Transform Stress and Anxiety into Joy and Success (Perigee/Penguin, 2009). In addition to her private practice, she creates therapeutic relaxation CDs for children, teens, and parents, and teaches workshops internationally on the healing power of children's imagination. You can find out more about her at http://www.imageryforkids.com.