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Recognizing Stress
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Parents & Teachers
Benefits of Play
& Age-Specific Interventions
Outreach for Children

Both public and private agencies working in emergency service areas have sponsored the development of intervention and prevention materials directed to children themselves and to their families and/or teachers. The materials briefly described here can be easily adapted to specific emergencies and require a minimum outlay.

Materials for Children

Intervention strategies for children include encouraging them to express their fears and anxieties regarding the disaster through stories, drawings, and the use of coloring books. At the most simple level, allowing children to tell their own stories of a disaster and draw their own pictures of what happened to them and how they felt about it can be of considerable assistance in both diagnosis and therapy. As can be seen from Love Creek, California, following a mudslide that killed a number of their classmates, this move of intervention requires only paper and pencil; crayons are optional.

Training manuals make use of coloring books. The Fresno County Mental Health Department developed a coloring book for earthquake victims in Coalinga, and a local community organization programmed to produce 10,000 copies, which were distributed near the time of the first-year anniversary of the event. These and similar coloring books explain simply the nature of the disaster, acknowledge human reactions of fear and anxiety, and provide blank pages for a child to add his or her drawings or comments. The National Institute of Mental Health has copies of these and other such booklets on file.

Books are also valuable resources. Local public libraries can put together lists of available books, by age group, about the environment and environmental hazards, separation and loss, and adaptation and coping. Likewise, dolls, puppets, and toys can be used in play to elicit children's concerns and conflicts and to help resolve them. Group game in which touching of persons is an important component can encourage mutual support among children and between children and their caretakers.

Reading about disasters, understanding what causes natural disasters, and talking about feelings will help children who have experienced a disaster to communicate their feelings and fears. Through thoughtful questioning, children can be guided to relate their own experiences to those of the characters in the books. Selected books can pertain to the actual disaster (i.e., a book about tornados for a group of children who may have experienced a tornado). Books can tap the same emotions so the child's feeling can be felt again and discussed. Children who then experience their confusing, anxious feeling can retell their story. Retelling enables the child to deal with their feelings more and more each time they tell their story. This is part of the healing process.

Materials for Families

The Church of the Brethren Disaster Relief Program has published a pamphlet by Dondt (1981) entitled Helping Your Child Cope With Disaster. Starting with the premise that family routines are disrupted and extra demands must be dealt with at such a time, it lists a number of common responses of children to disaster, together with some suggestions for parents to help children cope with their feelings — providing simple, accurate information to questions, reassuring their children that they are there to help, and talking with children about the parents' own feelings.

In the area of Prevention, the American Red Cross distributes a pamphlet for parents, Family Disaster Plan and Personal Survival Guide (1981), which discusses training family members in home safety measures, stocking of emergency supplies, and selecting what to take if one has to evacuate the home.

Materials for Schools

At the time of the 1982 California floods, the Santa Cruz County Mental Health Services cooperated in developing a pamphlet for teachers. Taking Care of Yourself and Each Other is generally available through mental health agencies. This pamphlet discusses reactions of children to disaster by age group (preschool, early childhood, preadolescent, and adolescent). It also describes classroom activities to assist children and adolescents in expressing their concerns and feelings about the disaster experience and discusses when and where to turn for professional mental health care for children who remain upset over some period of time. In addition, the pamphlet addresses the needs of the teachers themselves, who are also victims.

Treatment Principles

Some basic principles of treating child disaster victims emerge from research and training literature. A first principle is that victims of disaster are primarily normal people, but severe stress may have temporarily disrupted their functioning. Most victims function adequately before the catastrophe, even though their ability to cope may have been impaired by the situation. Victims may show symptoms of physical or psychological stress but they do not view their condition as pathological. Because catastrophes affect the entire cross-section of the population in an area of impact, disaster victims may come from any age group, socioeconomic class, or racial or ethnic group. Those studying children's reactions to stress point out the adaptive potential of children for many kinds of social and environmental stressors. These researchers emphasize the resilience of children, stemming from their personal dispositions, family supports, and community networks, and show their considerable ability to meet and to deal with stress.

A second treatment principle is that the family is the first line of resource for helping children and should be considered before involving other treatment resources. When treatment is indicated, the basic unit for services when possible should be the entire family and not just the individual child. The presence of a stable and caring parent is a crucial form of support for a child traumatized by an environmental crisis.

A third principle of treatment is that workers in disaster should seek out users of their services rather than waiting to be sought out. Outreach teams can use disaster assistance centers, schools, Red Cross evacuation centers, and other community centers to provide information on the availability of services for children and families. These teams can also go to homes, mobile centers, or other relocation areas. The media can be helpful in informing the public of available services.

In examining the responses of a community mental health center to a major school bus and train accident it was found that reaching out quickly to the victims and primary care givers during a crisis can avert the development of post traumatic symptoms. This form of active intervention can be contrasted with the conventional wait-and-see approach of traditional community mental health services. School-based mental health counselors emphasize the importance of encouraging the school-aged victim of disaster to participate in daily activities, involving teaching staff and other adults to provide emotional support and opportunities for communication, assisting the child in confronting the crisis and adjusting to loss, encouraging honest appraisal of the situation, and organizing schools to provide consultative services.

Teacher Support

Suggested Classroom Activities for Children to Understand Their Feelings

Disasters affect families in many different ways. For children, the horrors of the disaster are more than a movie or television show performed by actors. It becomes a reality that touches their very lives. For teachers to understand the individual reactions of each child in their classroom they must look at the baseline circumstances of the families and how each family unit has been touched by the disaster.

As soon as the possible it is critical to have children talk about their feelings. Following are some specific suggestions for classroom activities to help teachers help their students express themselves and thus work through the myriad of emotions they are experiencing.

Talking Method

1. Establish an open forum (each morning) for students to ask questions, make comments, express concerns and basically talk about the disaster.

2. Ask: "How do you feel about (the disaster) today?", "What have you heard or seen on the news about the disaster?", "How do you think the disaster affects you?", "How does it affect your own family, your friends?"

3. Talk about recovery.

4. Place a box in the classroom for students to drop in written notes or questions. The next day (or sometime during that week), read the notes in the classroom, using these as a forum to encourage open discussion.

Drawing Method

1. Ask students to draw pictures of how this disaster - or past disasters if they have experienced them - affects them and what reconstruction will be and look like.

2. Create a mural or a collage as a collective classroom project that expresses feelings about the disaster and what reconstruction will be and look like.

Other Activities

Have students write letters to students in schools that were directly affected by the disaster as a way to express concern and caring.

Caution: Be sensitive to the different cultures and histories of nations that have experienced this kind of disaster or other trauma.

And remember: Understand the baseline circumstances of the children's family prior to having children talk about their feelings. Above all, be honest without being to explicit. Dispel myths about class issues - for example, point out that the disaster has caused loss of people on many different levels emotionally and mentally as well as physically.

Tips on how you can help

Children are concrete thinkers for a great deal of their childhood. That is why we use real objects and pictures to guide discussion. Art, literature and play are primary ways we can provide children with props and other means to act out their feelings.

Continue on to the next section >

This material adapted by Dr. Karen DeBord, Child Development Specialist with North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. The material came from the Stress and Coping with Disaster manual from University Extension in Columbia, Missouri developed during the Flood of 1993.

Special Thanks to Dr. Karen DeBord, the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service and North Carolina State University


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