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Section 5
Posttraumatic Response to Children Following a Natural Disaster

Question 5 | Test | Table of Contents

In the last section, we discussed revisiting the site of the trauma and how your client can make this a successful trip.

In this section, we will discuss how to talk about a natural disaster crisis with children after the disaster has occurred using the Thirteen Points for Effective Discussion.

When talking with your children after a natural disaster, this discussion can be especially traumatic. When Tom and his family survived the earthquake that destroyed their home, often times, of course, parents feel it is best or easiest to avoid discussing the natural disaster after it has occurred. I shared the following 13 points with Tom to help him talk to his child Mandy age 8 about the earthquake. Mandy seemed particularly traumatized by the loss, frequently staring blankly into space, seemingly in her own internal world. I spoke with Tom without the presence of his wife, Karen, because she was in the hospital recovering from injuries. Clearly speaking to both parents together is ideal.

Thirteen Points for Effective Discussion:

1. First of all, find a private space for the discussion.
I stated to Tom, "Often times talking in the privacy of your home is the best way to make Mandy feel comfortable." Clearly in Tom’s case this was not possible since their home was destroyed by the earthquake. Thus, Tom had to wait until Mandy felt comfortable and safe in the new place. Wherever the space is, it should be a safe space. Often it is better to not talk with siblings in a group and make it a one-on-one conversation. This avoids any possibility of spats, ridicules, arguing, etc. between siblings. I suggested this to Tom, "In the conversation with Mandy plan to provide an environment where it is possible to freely express her feelings."

2. Stay Calm
Often with the trauma of natural disasters, children feel self-doubt and uncertainty. I stated to Tom, "Your calmness lets Mandy know that it is ok to talk about the situation and that whatever she talks about will be accepted."

3. Be honest with yourself
I stated to Tom, "it is also important that you are in touch with the issues, your own feelings, and your reaction to Mandy, and the situation. If you are unable to control yourself emotionally, reach out for help from myself, friends, relatives, and others" I then provided Tom with a pen and paper so he would have a physical list of his sources of support to take with him after the session.

4. Speak at the child’s level
I stated to Tom, "trauma is a deep and complex situation to deal with so it is important that when you are talking to Mandy you use words, concepts, and gestures that she can understand. Provide Mandy with information but do not overwhelm her or offer Mandy information that may confuse her." Do you have a Tom and or Mandy that you currrently are treating or have treated in the past that have experienced trauma due to a natural disaster? If so, what is some specific language you might use or have used to talk about the trauma with the child after it has happened? What type of coaching would be best to give the parent?

5. Read between the lines
I stated to Tom, "When having your conversation, with Mandy pay attention to cues she may be giving, such as behaviors and reactions during the conversation. Some things to look for are signs of fear and agitation and her attention span. Sometimes a child's messages may be subtle. Let these subtle clues gauge the length of your conversation. This conversation regarding her feelings concerning the loss of her home may take place in several sessions over several weeks or as long as it takes."

6. Validate the child’s feelings
Regarding validating Mandy's feelings, I stated to Tom, "You can go a long way to help Mandy by helping her clarify her feelings. It is important to validate Mandy’s feelings, whatever they may be. To help Mandy express her feelings by putting words to the feelings and seeing if they fit. For example, to say, ‘Mandy, do you feel more sad or more afraid?' "

7. Listen well
I stated to Tom, "in order to be a good listener make sure to use gentle, probing questions and comments, maintain good eye-contact, use focused questions when appropriate." A gentle probing question Tom might ask, "Mandy, would you like to talk about some of the things you miss most about our house?"

8. Show that you believe the child
I stated, "in order to show Mandy that you believe her by showing confidence, trust, and faith in what they are saying." For example if Mandy were to say "I can't think of anything that I miss now. Everything seems like such a mess (bursting into tears). " The reply might be "I understand its hard to think about, isn't it?"

9. Dispelling fault
I stated to Tom, "be sure to remind Mandy that it is not her fault." Since people in trauma tend to distrust and blame themselves, it is important to be proactive. Especially in cases where some family members die and others live, as you know, it is helpful to discuss their feelings.

10. Exploring fears
"Help empower Mandy to share her questions, assumptions, and fears by asking questions that open up the discussion," I stated.

11. Providing information
Information about the incident (the natural disaster) or actions that could be taken should be shared. What is important is not to preach or not pay attention to the timeliness of giving information.

12. Walking through the process
To help children deal with the uncertainty of trauma, it is helpful to share certain processes so the child can better predict and plan. For example Tom walked through the process of where Mandy would sleep; when she would return to school; how they would stay with relatives; and they would provide her with clothes; that he still had his job and would start to look for a more permanent housing as soon as possible. Do you agree that walking children through this process is vital?

13. Exploring resources
Help the child identify resources. Focus on whom, when and how to reach out for support. I stated to Tom, "help Mandy come up with a concrete list of people she can turn to."

What Not to Do:
When having a conversation with a child about the trauma of the natural disaster, there are a few things that it is best not to do. I stated to Tom, "avoiding these five behaviors will allow for a more effective discussion with Mandy." Here is the list of five behaviors to avoid doing that I shared with Tom before he had his conversation with Mandy about her trauma:
1. Don’t make false promises
If you are unsure about something or are not sure if it is true, then explain that to the child. For example, Tom should not tell Mandy everything is going to be the same as it was or we will find even a better place to live in.
2. Don’t fall apart
When talking to the child, make sure to maintain emotional control. It is important to send the message that you can handle and can be trusted with whatever information the child gives you.
3. Don’t pass judgment
Pay attention to your facial expressions, body language, inferences, and questions which give away signals of judgment.
4. Don’t become an inquisitor
Rather than trying to drill out information from Mandy, I stated to Tom, "help her feel comfortable enough to reveal what she wants to share."
5. Don’t preach
Keep the focus on the child and refrain from ranting, blaming, and sharing your opinions.

Do you have a Tom that would benefit from these tips to help talk to their child about trauma?

Tips for Talking to Children and Youth After Traumatic Events

- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Tips for Talking to Children and Youth After Traumatic Events:A Guide for Parents and Educators. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2007, p. 1-3.

- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event: A Guide for Parents, Caregivers, and Teachers. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2013, p. 1-4.

- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Helping Youth Cope with Disasters. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2017, p. 1-7.

In this section we have discussed how to talk about a natural disaster crisis with children after the disaster has occurred using the Thirteen Points for Effective Discussion.

In the next section, we will discuss struggling regarding sharing the trauma story with a loved one and stopping flashbacks.

Source: Johnson

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Dawson, K. S., Joscelyne, A., Meijer, C., Tampubolon, A., Steel, Z., & Bryant, R. A. (2014). Predictors of chronic posttraumatic response in Muslim children following natural disaster. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 6(5), 580–587. 

Grolnick, W. S., Schonfeld, D. J., Schreiber, M., Cohen, J., Cole, V., Jaycox, L., Lochman, J., Pfefferbaum, B., Ruggiero, K., Wells, K., Wong, M., & Zatzick, D. (2018). Improving adjustment and resilience in children following a disaster: Addressing research challenges. American Psychologist, 73(3), 215–229. 

Ortiz, C. D., Silverman, W. K., Jaccard, J., & La Greca, A. M. (2011). Children's state anxiety in reaction to disaster media cues: A preliminary test of a multivariate model. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 3(2), 157–164. 

What are the thirteen points that your client can use to talk to their child or children after facing a traumatic natural disaster to help them process the trauma? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 6
Table of Contents