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Helping your children cope after the fire


Last updated 11/2/2007 at Noon

The children of Fallbrook may have undoubtedly been affected by the Fallbrook (Rice Canyon) Fire and may exhibit symptoms of the traumatic experience.

Children may respond to disaster by demonstrating increased anxiety, emotional and behavioral problems. They may also return to earlier behavior patterns, such as bedwetting and separation anxiety.

Older children may react to physical and emotional disruptions with aggression or withdrawal. Even children who have only indirect contact with the disaster may have unresolved feelings.

In most cases, such responses are temporary. As time passes, symptoms usually ease. However, high winds, sirens or other reminders of the emotions associated with the disaster may cause anxiety to return.

Children imitate the way adults cope with emergencies. They can detect adults’ uncertainty and grief. Adults can make disasters less traumatic for children by maintaining a sense of control over the situation. The most assistance you as a parent can provide a child is to be calm, honest and caring.

A child’s age is parallel in how they react to a disaster. Below are some common physical and emotional reactions in children after a disaster or traumatic event:

Birth to 2 years – When children are pre-verbal and experience a trauma, they do not have the words to describe the event or their feelings. Infants may react to trauma by being irritable, crying more than usual or wanting to be held and cuddled.

Preschool (2 to 6 years) – Preschool children often feel helpless and powerless in the face of an overwhelming event. As a result, they feel intense fear and insecurity. In the weeks following a traumatic event, preschoolers may reenact the incident or the disaster over and over again.

School-age (8 to 10 years) – The school-age child has the ability to understand the permanence of loss. Some children become intensely preoccupied with the details of a traumatic event and want to talk about it continually. This preoccupation can interfere with the child’s concentration at school and academic performance may decline.

Pre-adolescence to adolescence (11 to 18 years) – As children grow older, their responses begin to resemble adults’ reaction to trauma. After a trauma, the world can seem dangerous and unsafe. A teenager may feel overwhelmed by intense emotions and yet feel unable to discuss them with relatives.

Meanwhile, be aware that following a disaster, children are most afraid that:

• The event will happen again

• Someone will be killed

• They will be separated from the family

• They will be left alone

Reassure children with compassion and understanding:

• Hug and touch your children.

• Calmly and firmly provide factual information about the recent disaster.

• Encourage your children to talk about their feelings. Be honest about your own.

• Spend extra time with your children at bedtime.

• Re-establish a schedule for work, play, meals and rest.

• Involve your children by giving them specific chores to help them feel they are helping to restore family and community life.

• Encourage your children to help develop a family disaster plan.

• Make sure your children know what to do when they hear smoke detectors, fire alarms and local community warning systems such as horns or sirens.

• Praise and recognize responsible behavior.

• Understand that your children will need to mourn their own losses.

• Try to understand what is causing anxieties and fears.

Create a reassuring environment. If your children do not respond when you follow the suggestions listed above, seek help from an appropriate professional such as the child’s primary care physician, a mental health provider specializing in children’s needs or a member of the clergy.

Sally Wolf is a Child and Family Therapist based in Fallbrook. The information contained in this article is hers along with data from FEMA and the Red Cross. Wolf can be reached at (760) 695-7813.


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