|Strategies for Parents & Teachers to Assist Children Who Are Managing Stress
During disasters, many families suffer from the onset of sudden stress. Severe stress
can disrupt functioning. Over time, relief from stress enables families to eventually
reestablish equilibrium. Informed intervention can speed up this process and in many
instances can prevent serious problems later.
On the other hand, families that were dysfunctional prior to the disaster will not
be cured through intervention. The most vulnerable and those with the lowest resources
are most susceptible before the disaster and remain so after a disaster.
A theory worthy of consideration in dealing with disaster stress is attachment theory.
Throughout life, young children are more resilient if they have become attached to at
least one significant adult. Being able to trust at least one adult pulls them through
stressful times. Secure attachment provides a foundation for healthy development and
healthy mental functioning.
Although attachment exists all of the time, it is particularly evident when a child is
ill, tired, or afraid. A child searches out that person who makes them feel safe and
secure. Stress occurs when that person is not available in proximity or emotionally.
Separation is the flip side of attachment. Any indication that separation may occur
causes stress. Children going into a new child care situation, to a new class, or to spend
the night away from home (even to camp), can be stressed due to separation. Children can
bring an attachment item along (blanket, bear) to child care to ease the separation from
The more severe the disaster, the more serious the threat and the greater the chance
for actual separation or loss. Sleeping alone in a strange place, being separated from
parents and other family members, and losing toys and pets are ways children are affected
during a disaster.
Parents should be assured that they are not spoiling their child by responding to
fright. If feelings are not recognized, they are then buried and later may surface when the reason is not as evident. Significant adult availability and responsiveness is of great
importance to move through the stressful time.
Helping Children Handle Disaster-Related Anxiety
Pre-School Age Children
Behavior such as bedwetting, thumb sucking, baby talk, or a fear of sleeping alone may
intensify in some younger children, or reappear in children who had previously outgrown
them. They may complain of very real stomach cramps or headaches, and be reluctant to go
to school. It's important to remember that these children are not "being bad".
They are afraid. Here are some suggestions to help them cope with their fears:
Reassure pre-schoolers that they're safe. Provide extra comfort and contact by
discussing the child's fears at night, by telephoning during the day and by providing extra
Get a better understanding of a child's feelings about the disaster. Encouraging
children to draw pictures about the disaster and then discussing them will offer insight
into each child's particular fears and concerns. You can work to structure children's play
so that it remains constructive, serving as an outlet for expressing fear or anger.
School Age Children
Children this age may ask many questions about the disaster, and it's importance that
you try to answer them in clear and simple language. If a child is concerned about a
parent who is distressed, don't tell a child not to worry; doing so will just make him or
her worry more.
Here are several important points to remember with grade-school-age children:
False reassurance does not help this age group. Don't say disasters will never
affect your family again; children will know this isn't true. Instead say "I'll
always try to keep you safe," or "Adults are working very hard to make things
safer for next time." Children's fears often get worse around bed time, so you might
want to stick around until the child falls asleep in order to make him or her feel
Monitor children's media viewing. Images of the disaster and the damage are
extremely frightening to children, so consider limiting the amount of media coverage they
see. A good way to do this without calling attention to your own concern is to regularly
schedule an activity story reading, drawing, movies, or letter writing, for example
during the news hour.
Allow them to express themselves through play or drawing. As with younger
children, school-age children sometimes find comfort in expressing themselves through
playing games or drawing scenes of the disaster. Allowing them to do so and then talking
about it gives you the story they have expressed in pictures with an emphasis on personal
Don't be afraid to say "I don't know." Part of keeping discussion of
the disaster open and honest is not being afraid to say you don't know how to answer a
child's question. When such an occasion arises, explain to your child that disasters are
very unpredictable, and they cause things that even adults have trouble dealing with.
Temper this by explaining that, even so, adults will always work very hard to keep
children safe and secure.
Encourage youth to work out their concerns about the disaster. Adolescents may try to
downplay their worries. It is generally a good idea to talk about these issues, keeping
the lines of communication open and remaining honest about the financial, physical and
emotional impact of the disaster on your family.
Adolescents typically are going through an identity phase of development. Their sense
of "who they are" at this point in their lives may be tied to possessions and
friends. Having to transfer schools may be traumatic and telling friends they are living
in a shelter equally difficult.
Offer support and encouragement that things will get better and elicit their
contribution to work on repairs or prevention of additional damage.
General Guidelines for Parents
Spend more time with your child, using at least part of that time to
General Guidelines for Teachers
Some comfort may be restored through recreating familiar surroundings (i.e. obtaining
copies of photos from family and friends and allowing the child to replace stuffed
Children can be expected to have greater difficulty with times of separation (school
drop-offs, bedtime) so extra reassurance is important. Let your child know where you are.
Daytime phone calls may be increased.
Monitor you child's viewing of the disaster on television and other media. Repeated
viewing is traumatic. If possible, watch television with your child.
Allow the child to discuss the disaster, but do not force it. When discussing it,
emphasize that the child is now safe.
Greet each child warmly each day. That transition from parent to
teacher is an important one. Often mornings are extremely stressful for families. Children
may have been yelled at, hurried, and given breakfast in the car. A warm smile or hug as a
child walks in the door can go a long way to help a child feel accepted and wanted.
Spend time with each child every day. Even if it's just for one or two minutes,
get down on the child's level, make eye contact, listen, and watch.
Value each child. Children learn to value themselves through the eyes (and
words) of others. What you say (or don't say) to a child has tremendous impact.
Eliminate stressful situations from your classroom and routines. Ask yourself the
Is my room arrangement simple and easy to move through?
Are activity areas clearly defined (e.g., art area, block area, reading/quiet area)?
Do I have a balance of noisy areas (e.g., blocks, dramatic play), and quiet areas
Have I planned my day so that it alternates between active and quiet activities,
organized projects and free play?
Do I stick to routine as much as possible so that children know what to expect each day?
Previous guidelines prepared by Extension Specialists at Iowa State University.
Parents and Teachers Can Assist Children
In a calm, supportive manner talk honestly about the facts of the disaster. Falsely
minimizing the disaster will not end the children's concerns.
Encourage children to share their feelings and discuss their experiences.
Methods for Helping Children Cope in School
Story-telling. Oral or written story-telling are among the methods that can be
used to help children reenact their experiences in a constructive manner. Encouraging
group discussion after each child relates his/her story allows the children to assist each
Arts projects. Encouraging children to draw what they have felt, wished or
dreamed after a disaster allows them to express their feelings. Like story-telling, the
drawings can be shared during a period of group discussion. Non-verbal activities promote
the sharing of feelings and the beginning of grieving.
Group projects. In a discussion led by their teacher, children can discuss what
they could do to assist with the recovery efforts. Examples include gathering books and
toys for the relief effort or working together on a clean-up project, especially in
schools that have been seriously affected.
During the disaster and during recovery, there are many concerns about child care.
Where are children safe? Who can watch them while parents are busy in "fighting the
disaster" or assisting with a clean-up?
Some possibilities are churches, clergy/members, child care facilities, relatives, some
high school students or elderly in community. Check for after school or summer school
activities this would give the child a meaningful place to be and would free your time for
dealing with the crisis. Other ideas include: Library programs; foster grandparents
agencies; 4-H Club; church youth groups; child care centers.
Many teachers respond to disasters with creative classroom activities to assist their
students in ventilating and integrating their experiences. Some of these activities are
appropriate for various age groups. They are meant to be vehicles for expression and
discussion for your students, important steps in the healing process. These are examples
of what can be done. They can be used to stimulate your own ideas and can be adapted to
meet your own students' needs and your teaching style.
Availability of toys that encourage play reenactment of children's experiences and observations during the disaster can help children integrate
these experiences. These might include fire trucks, dump trucks, rescue trucks,
ambulances, building blocks or playing with puppets or dolls as ways for the child to
ventilate and act out his or her own feelings about what has occurred.
Children need close physical contact during times of stress to help them reestablish
ego boundaries and a sense of security. Games that involve physical touching among
children within a structure are helpful in this regard. Some examples might be:
a. Ring Around the Rosie
Providing extra amounts of finger foods, in small portions, and fluids is a concrete
way of supplying the emotional and physical nourishment children need in times of stress.
Oral satisfaction is especially necessary as children tend to revert to more regressive
behavior in response to feeling that their survival or security is threatened.
b. London Bridge
c. Duck, Duck, Goose
Have the children do a mural on long paper with topics such as what happened in your
house (school or neighborhood) when the big storm hit (earthquake, etc.). This is
recommended for small groups with discussion afterward facilitated by an adult.
"Short stories" dictated to an adult on a one-to-one basis on such topics
as "What I do and don't like about the rain." This activity can help the child
verbalize his or her fears, as well as to perhaps get back in touch with previous positive
associations with the disruptive phenomena.
Have the children draw pictures about the disaster and then discuss the pictures in
small groups. This activity allows them to vent their experiences and to discover that
others share their fears.
Do a group collage.
Primary School Activities
For the younger children, availability of toys that encourage expressive play
reenactment of their experiences and observations during the disaster can be helpful in
their integrating these experiences. These might include ambulances, dump trucks, fire
trucks, building blocks, and dolls. Playing with puppets can provide ways for the older
children, as well, to ventilate their feelings.
Help or encourage the children to develop skits or puppet shows about what happened
in the disaster. Encourage them to include anything positive about the experience as well
as those aspects that were frightening or disconcerting.
Stimulate group discussion about disaster experiences by showing your own feelings,
fears or experiences during the disaster. It is very important to legitimize their
feelings and to help them feel less isolated.
Have the children brainstorm on their own classroom or family disaster plan. What
would they do? What would they take if they had to evacuate? How would they contact
parents? How should the family be prepared? How could they help the family? Encourage them
to discuss these things with their families.
Encourage class activities in which children can organize or build projects
(scrapbooks, replicas, etc.), thus giving them a sense of mastery and control over events.
Have the children color the pictures in "The Awful Rain and How It Made Me
Feel" (or similar material appropriate to the disaster). Encourage the children to
talk about their own feelings during and after the disaster.
Junior High and High School Activities
Group discussion of their experiences of the disaster is particularly
important among adolescents. They need the opportunity to vent as well as to normalize the
extreme emotions that come up for them. A good way to stimulate such a discussion is for
the teacher to share his/her own reactions to the disaster. They may need considerable
reassurance that even extreme emotions and "crazy thoughts" are normal in a
disaster. It is important to end such discussions on a positive note (e.g., What heroic
acts were observed? How can we be of help at home or in the community? How could we be
more prepared for a disaster?). Such discussion is appropriate for any course of study in
that it can facilitate a return to more normal functioning.
Break the class into small groups and have them develop a disaster plan for their
home, school or community. This can be helpful in repairing a sense of mastery and
security, as well as having practical merit. The small groups might then share their plans
in a discussion with the entire class. Encourage students to share their plans with their
families. They may wish to conduct a "Family Disaster Preparedness" meeting and
invite family members and disaster preparedness experts to participate.
Conduct a class discussion and/or support a class project on how the students might
help the community rehabilitation effort. It is important to help them develop concrete
and realistic ways to be of assistance. This helps them to overcome the feelings of
helplessness, frustration, and "survivors guilt" that are common in disaster
Classroom activities that relate the disaster to course study can be a good way to
help the students integrate their own experience or observations while providing specific
learning experiences. In implementing the following suggestions ,or similar ideas of your
own, it is very important to allow time for the students to discuss feelings that are
stimulated by the projects or issues covered.
Journalism Have the students write stories that cover different aspects
of the disaster. These might include community impact, lawsuits that result from the
disaster, human interest stories from fellow students, geological impact, etc. Issues such
as accurate reporting of catastrophic events as sensationalism might be discussed. The
stories might be compiled into a special student publication.
Science Cover scientific aspects of the disaster, e.g., discuss climate
condition, geological impact, etc. Project about stress: physiological responses to stress
and methods of dealing with it. Discuss how flocks of birds, herds of animals, etc., band
together and work in a threatening or emergency situation. What can be learned from their
English composition Have the students write about their own experiences
in the disaster. Such issues as the problems that arise in conveying heavy emotional tone
without being overly dramatic might be discussed.
Literature Have students report on natural disaster in Greek mythology,
American and British literature, in poetry.
Psychology Have the students apply what they have learned in the course
to the emotions, behaviors, and stress reactions they felt or observed in the disaster.
Cover post-traumatic stress syndrome. Have a guest speaker from the mental health
professions involved in disaster work with victims, etc. Have students discuss (from their
own experience) what things have been most helpful in dealing with disaster-related
stress. Have students develop a mental health education brochure discussing
emotional/behavioral reactions to disaster and things that are helpful in coping with
disaster-related stress. Have students conduct a survey among their parents or friends:
What was the most dangerous situation in which you ever found yourself? How did you react
Peer counseling Provide special information on common responses to
disaster; encourage the students' helping each other integrate their own experiences.
Health discuss emotional reactions to disaster, the importance of taking
care of one's own emotional and physical well-being, etc. Discuss health implications of
the disaster, e.g., water contamination, food that may have gone bad due to lack of
refrigeration, and other health precautions and safety measures. Discuss the effects of
adrenalin on the body during stress and danger. A guest speaker from Public Health and/or
Mental Health might be invited to the class.
Art Have the students portray their experiences of the disaster in
various art media. This may be done individually or as a group effort (e.g., making a
Speech/Drama Have the students portray the catastrophic emotions that
come up in response to a disaster. Have them develop a skit or play on some aspects of the
event. Conduct a debate: Women are more psychologically prepared to handle stress than men
Math Have the class solve mathematical problems related to the impact of
the disaster (e.g., build questions around gallons of water lost, cubic feet of earth that
moved in a mud slide).
History Have students report on natural disasters that have occurred in
your community or geographic area and what lessons were learned that can be useful in
preparing for future disasters.
Civics/Government Study governmental agencies responsible for aid to
victims, how they work, how effective they are, the political implications within a
community. Examine the community systems and how the stress of the disaster has affected
them. Have students invite a local governmental official to class to discuss disaster
precautions, warning systems, etc. Have students contact the California Seismic Safety
Commission of State legislators regarding recent disaster-related bills passed or pending.
How will this legislation affect your community and other areas of the state? Visit local
emergency operating centers and learn about their functions.
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
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