Helping Kids Cope With Natural Disasters

Tropical Storm Irene killed dozens of people on the East Coast and left tens of thousands of households to deal with the disruption caused by flooding. While the misery and choas that can follow is tough on adults, mental health and public health experts say the dislocation may even be tougher on kids.

Jeffrey Guenzel directs the Child Behavioral Health Division for New Jersey's Department of Children and Families. He said the post-disaster stress coming at the start of the school year can be traumatizing for young children who may have never experienced a natural disaster before.

"And for kids, especially the younger children, this is a first time experience and they don't necessarily have the coping skills to easily navigate themselves  through the stressful times," Guenzel said.

"The personal feeling of loss or uncertainty that accompanies storms of this magnitude, can leave children and families with an emotional toll," State Health Commissioner Jennifer Velez added.

Experts say the first priority is that the child feel safe and secure. In some cases, Guenzel notes, it might be best for the youngster to stay with family out of the flood zone. On the other hand, if conditions permit, being present and part of reorganizing process can be empowering and reassuring.
Depending on the age of the youngster, the anniversary of September 11 may also compound the post-Irene reaction, according to Allison Blake, commissioner of NJ's Department of Children and Families.

"The good news is that children are amazingly resilient and providing some simple supports, including an empathetic ear, can help children cope," Blake said.

Guenzel said one way to help children feel more secure is to have them focus on the people in the community, like first responders or extended family that helped.
"Have them write the list up of individuals that have supported them thus far and that can support them so that they can see in a tangible way on paper, hey these are the people  that are helping me," Guenzel said.
Guenzel added kids that are traumatized may become angry, have difficulty sleeping and even withdraw from their peers. He said getting them to talk about their feelings and anxieties is the critical first step.  

State officials are encouraging parents whose children are having difficulty coping post-Irene not to ignore it, but to bring it to the attention of their pediatrician or reach out to the NJ Division of Child Behavioral Health Services at 1-877-652-7624.