Helping Kids Cope With Disaster

Judy Hoban, center, walks past her grandson James, 3, left, and sons Anthony, 12, second from right, and Joey, 7, in front of their condemned home in Port Charlotte, Fla. AP

Hurricane Charley turned the lives of many families upside down.

Family and Adolescence Counselor Mike Riera gives advice for helping kids sort out their emotions after a traumatic event on The Saturday Early Show.

The single most important thing parents can do to help children in the days and weeks after a disaster such as Charley is to spend time with them, says Riera

Some of it should be spent talking about what happened, but most of the time can be devoted to just being with them and getting back into the rhythm of life - or finding a new rhythm of life.

Don't be alarmed by nightmares or trouble falling asleep. This is a normal reaction for many kids. Assure them everything is fine and that the nightmares will go away.

Expect some regression. The child may want their old teddy bear or want to sleep in bed with you. That's normal; that's how kids reassure themselves. Even expect some negative regression like bedwetting. Assure them and connect the dots. Let them know this has to do with stress, and that they will be fine soon.

The fears most likely won't last for years. Research has debunked the myth that people should talk and emote over and over about the event. We now know it's better to do some of this, but that it's just as important to keep up with daily life and find a new rhythm. If, however, the fears do linger for years, by all means see a psychologist or psychiatrist.

To help children cope with loss of their home, school, toys and pets, be honest, in an age-appropriate way, and hold a positive expectancy. Yes, our house was destroyed and it makes us sad and a little scared. But we had insurance, so it'll be confusing for a couple of months, but in time we'll find another house, and we'll need your help along the way.

With toys, you should try to replace the favorites as soon as possible. With pets, take your time. Don't rush out right away. Get resettled first. In the interim, assure your kids you'll get a new pet, but not right away.

To help kids cope with the fact that some of their friends suddenly moved away and aren't coming back, listen to what they have to say. Ask how they feel. Remind them of their friendship-making abilities and that they'll meet new friends in time -- but that yes, right now, it's a little lonely. Again, mix honesty with positive expectancy, and, of course, your presence.

If you feel guilty because you did not remove your family from an area that was hit, remind yourself that nobody knows the future, and you made the best decision you could given the information that was known. Then learn from the experience so that down the road you err more on the side of caution. That's the best we can do: accept responsibility and learn from the experience. One without the other is hollow, but together they are substantive and minimize the guilt.
  • Rome Neal

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