Kids cope with post-storm stress

A volunteer watched a little girl doing something countless children do every day: draw a house.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIM0RE | October 3, 2005

"We care for young children who have experienced disasters while their parents are applying for assistance."

—Helen Stonesifer

A volunteer watched a little girl doing something countless children do every day: draw a house. But this little girl, a Hurricane Katrina survivor, said: "I'm drawing a house for all of the children to go home to."

"Do you have a home to go back to?" the volunteer asked. And the child said no.

"I was impressed with that little girl, how she was thinking of others even though she had lost her home," said Helen Stonesifer, administrator of the Disaster Child Care (DCC) program.

For children at DCC sites across the nation, the simple act of playing takes on a new depth. DCC trains, certifies and mobilizes volunteers to disaster sites in the United States to provide crisis intervention to young children of families suffering from natural or human-caused disasters. DCC is a program of the Church of the Brethren General Board’s emergency response/service ministries.

DCC programs are now in place at Pensacola and Ft. Walton Beach, Fla.; Denver, Colo.; Lafayette, La., and San Bernardino, Calif., with Mobile, Ala., planning an additional program. "All these are locations where Hurricane Katrina evacuees have been transferred from the Gulf states," said Stonesifer.

"We care for young children who have experienced disasters while their parents are applying for assistance. Childcare volunteers are trained to recognized and understand the fears young children have during a traumatic event."

Righ now, many of the children - who range in age from two to six years - are expressing their feelings through painting and drawing, said Stonesifer. "Volunteers are taught to provide play activities that give children an outlet to express these feelings - which otherwise could stay bottled up in them for many years."

Disaster Child Care services are usually set up in an American Red Cross service center, or in a Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster recovery center, Stonesifer said. "Volunteers provide play activities from a suitcase, called the 'Kit of Comfort,' taken to the disaster site by the volunteers. The kit has many activities children can use to express their feelings," said Stonesifer.

Sometimes children are in a DCC setting all day, sometimes just for a couple hours. "Sometimes they need a hug, or a lap to sit on, or someone to listen to them, someone to share what they've experienced," said Stonesifer.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, children have shown evidence of their stress in many different ways, said Stonesifer. "They can be very possessive, and that's understandable because a lot of the children have lost all of their toys, their homes, their clothes, and even a loved one. They want to hold onto a toy - because it's something that's theirs."

Other children want to be by themselves, she said, "they'll sit in a corner and suck their thumbs." In those situations, sometimes one-on-one attention from a DCC volunteer will help. Other times a DCC volunteer might refer a family to professional mental health services.

Tips for parents in post-disaster situations

Adapted from the New York State Office of Mental Health

When problems are kept hidden and not discussed openly, children may interpret this to mean that something dreadful is going on, often even worse that it really is. How can parents can help children cope?

• Hug and touch your child often.

• Reassure the child frequently that you are safe and together.

• Talk with your child about his or her feelings about the disaster. Share your feelings too.

• Give information the child can understand.

• Talk about what happened.

• Spend extra time with your child at bedtime.

• Allow children to grieve about their lost treasures; a toy, a blanket, their home.

• Talk with your child about what you will do if another disaster strikes.

• Let your child help in preparing and planning for future disasters.

• Try to spend extra time together in family activities.

• Begin replacing fears with pleasant memories.

• If your child is having problems at school, talk to the teacher and work together to help.

Children depend on daily routines: They wake up, eat breakfast, go to school, play with friends. When emergencies or disasters interrupt this routine, children may become anxious. In a disaster, they will look to you and other adults for help. How you react to an emergency gives them clues on how to act. If you react with alarm, a child may become more scared. They see our fear as proof that the danger is real. If you seem overcome with a sense of loss, a child may feel their loss more strongly.

Children's fears also may stem from their imagination, and you should take these feelings seriously. A child who feels afraid is afraid. Your words and actions can provide reassurance. When talking with your child, be sure to present a realistic picture that is both honest and manageable. Feelings of fear are healthy and natural for adults and children. But as an adult, you need to keep control of the situation. When you are sure that danger has passed, concentrate on your child’s emotional needs by asking the child what is uppermost in his or her mind.

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