By Elias McQuaid | Psychologist, Park City Learning Center
Children of all ages may have strong feelings and emotions during or after disasters or emergencies like the COVID-19 outbreak. Some children may react right away, while others may show signs of difficulty much later. Reactions will also be unique to each child depending on their exposure and their history or experiences.
Children react, in part, on what they see from the adults around them. When parents and caregivers deal with a disaster calmly and confidently, they can provide the best support for their children. Parents can be more reassuring to others around them, especially children, if they are better prepared.
The emotional impact of an emergency on a child depends on a child’s characteristics and experiences, the social and economic circumstances of the family and community, and the availability of local resources. Not all children respond in the same ways. Some might have more severe, longer-lasting reactions.
The following specific factors may affect a child’s emotional response:
– Direct involvement with the emergency
– Previous traumatic or stressful event
– Belief that the child or a loved one may die
– Loss of a family member, close friend, or pet
– Separation from caregivers
– Physical injury
– How parents and caregivers respond
– Family resources
– Relationships and communication among family members
– Repeated exposure to mass media coverage of the emergency and aftermath
– Ongoing stress due to the change in familiar routines and living conditions
– Cultural differences
– Community resilience
As a school district, we want to help our students and families as best we can during these stressful times. There are several things we can do to help our students and they include:
– Stay calm and reassure your children.
– Talk to children about what is happening in a way that they can understand. Keep it simple and appropriate for each child’s age.
– Provide opportunities to talk about feelings and practice relaxation strategies.
– Engage in whole family stress relief activities.
– Don’t neglect regular exercise and movement. Regular exercise has many benefits—it builds strength and cardiovascular health, releases endorphins, and improves sleep, all of which lead to decreased stress and anxiety. Even short bursts of movement offer benefit, and moving as a family offers a feeling of connection, which has also been linked to reduced stress. So, join your children in a quick game of tag or a living room dance party when you’re short on time; and shoot hoops, take the dog on a long walk, or find a family-friendly bike trail when you have more time for longer stress-relieving outdoor recreation.
What Not To Do
– Expect children to be brave or tough.
– Make children discuss the event before they are ready.
– Get angry if children show strong emotions.
– Get upset if they begin bed-wetting, acting out, or thumb-sucking
The common reactions to distress will fade over time for most children. Children who were directly exposed to a disaster can become upset again; behavior related to the event may return if they see or hear reminders of what happened. If children continue to be very upset or if their reactions hurt their schoolwork or relationships then parents may want to talk to a professional or have their children talk to someone who specializes in children’s emotional needs. Learn more about common reactions to distress:
For infants to 2 year olds: Infants may become more cranky. They may cry more than usual or want to be held and cuddled more.
For 3 to 6 year olds: Preschool and kindergarten children may return to behaviors they have outgrown. For example, toileting accidents, bed-wetting, or being frightened about being separated from their parents/caregivers. They may also have tantrums or a hard time sleeping.
For 7 to 10 year olds: Older children may feel sad, mad, or afraid that the event will happen again. Peers may share false information; however, parents or caregivers can correct the misinformation. Older children may focus on details of the event and want to talk about it all the time or not want to talk about it at all. They may have trouble concentrating.
For pre-teens and teenagers: Some preteens and teenagers respond to trauma by acting out. This could include reckless driving, and alcohol or drug use. Others may become afraid to leave the home. They may cut back on how much time they spend with their friends. They can feel overwhelmed by their intense emotions and feel unable to talk about them. Their emotions may lead to increased arguing and even fighting with siblings, parents/caregivers or other adults.
For special needs children: Children who need continuous use of a breathing machine or are confined to a wheelchair or bed, may have stronger reactions to a threatened or actual disaster. They might have more intense distress, worry or anger than children without special needs because they have less control over day-to-day well-being than other people. The same is true for children with other physical, emotional, or intellectual limitations. Children with special needs may need extra words of reassurance, more explanations about the event, and more comfort and other positive physical contact such as hugs from loved ones.
Content Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention https://www.cdc.gov/childrenindisasters/helping-children-cope.html
The Emotional Impact of Disaster on Children and Families https://www.aap.org/en-us/Documents/disasters_dpac_PEDsModule9.pdf
“Coping After a Disaster” children’s book https://www.cdc.gov/cpr/readywrigley/documents/RW_Coping_After_a_Disaster_508.pdf
Home Management Strategies for Panic Disorder https://www.anxietycanada.com/articles/home-management-strategies-for-panic-disorder/
Helping Children Deal with Change and Stress https://www.brighthorizons.com/family-resources/helping-children-deal-with-change-and-stress
Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Disasters and Other Traumatic Events: What Parents, Rescue Workers, and the Community Can Do https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/helping-children-and-adolescents-cope-with-disasters-and-other-traumatic-events/index.shtml