Helping kids cope during crisis: What do we tell them?

“Will we have an earthquake in Cambridge?”
That’s one of the questions my students asked during a discussion about the earthquake. You can bet that in numerous schools and households throughout the country, the same question is being asked. It’s important that adults address children’s concerns during this difficult time. Here are some suggestions from Dr. David Fassler, a child and adolescent psychiatrist practicing in Vermont.
As adults, we are traumatized by the events unfolding in Haiti. It’s even more traumatizing to children. To begin with, he reminds adults that a catastrophe such as an earthquake is very scary to kids. Talking to kids decreases their fear. They might also get incorrect information from friends. So it’s important to give them the facts. If your child is not comfortable talking to you, find an individual that the child likes talking to.
Tell children that a natural disaster isn’t anyone’s fault. It simply happens; it cannot be prevented. It’s also important to explain the event in simple terms that kids can understand without providing too much information.
The way children respond to crises often depends on the way parents respond. Kids can tell when parents are worried. They learn a lot from listening to your conversations with other adults. Admit to kids that you’re concerned. It’s important not to lie to them.
Kids’ ages determine how they’ll respond to a disaster. All kids might show sadness. Young children might show their concerns by refusing to go to school and clinging to their caretakers. They are afraid that if they’re away from you, they may never see you again. These kids might also have nightmares, wet their beds or scream in their sleep. Some kids find it difficult to focus in school. Some complain of headaches and stomachaches. Older kids may become withdrawn from family and friends. They might also argue more with parents and lose interest in school. Their grades might also suffer.
Adults must create an open and supportive environment where kids feel comfortable asking questions. Haitian parents may be preoccupied themselves with missing relatives and may be impatient with kids’ concerns and questions. This is a time to stop and listen to your children. However, don’t force kids to talk unless they’re ready to talk. Use language that’s appropriate to kids’ ages, language and developmental level. Don’t be surprised if your child asks you the same question over and over. They just want to be reassured.
Let kids know that their questions and concerns are important and valid. This week we called a Haitian father at my school because his son was very worried about his mother who’s missing in Port-au-Prince. Since the father is now re-married, his son is afraid that he’s not trying to contact his mom. The father impatiently told us that he’s already told his son he has no information.
“He has to wait like all of us,” the man told us. Kids are not like adults. We must be sensitive to their concerns.
Additionally, kids tend to personalize these situations. They might worry about their own safety and that of immediate family members. They might also worry about friends and relatives who live far from them. Reassure them about their own safety. Remind them that you’ll take good care of them.
Some kids might not be comfortable talking about the crisis and their concerns but may prefer to write stories, poems or draw pictures. Encourage that.
Don’t let kids watch too much television with scary images. Since these scenes are often shown repeatedly, they may compound their fears.
If children continue to experience symptoms such as ongoing sleep problems, headaches and stomachaches, worries, fears about death, leaving parents or going to school, ask your child’s doctor or school counselor for help.
Parents and guardians may also contact: Children’s Services of Roxbury at 617-445-6655. The Cambridge Mental Health Center has Haitian clinicians that can also help. They can be reached at: 617-591-6380.
Yolette Ibokette is an educator in Cambridge who is originally from Port-au-Prince. She is a longtime contributor to the BHR.