Providing Emotional Support to Children After a Disaster
Recent hurricanes such as Harvey, Irma, and Maria have presented stark images of the terrible damage that can come from natural disasters. These disasters are often followed by a national outpouring of much-needed resources and support, to help those impacted meet their immediate needs for food, drinking water, safe shelter, and other necessities.
While these resources are clearly essential, another aspect of disaster recovery also warrants attention – the emotional well-being of the individuals, families, and communities. Experiencing a disaster first-hand can be extremely traumatic. Stress and anxiety can also result from hearing about losses experienced by others, the ongoing challenges of rebuilding homes and communities, and watching media coverage of these events. For some people, feelings of stress or anxiety may be mild and subside quickly, but for others the challenges may be more significant (such as post-traumatic stress disorder) or longer-lasting.
While experiencing a disaster can be traumatic for anyone, children are especially vulnerable to physical and psychological issues such as anxiety or depression. Depending on the child’s age, trauma and stress may also be reflected in behavioral changes, such as clinginess, aggressiveness, and difficulty getting along with peers and adults.
Recovery supports to feel safe and hopeful
As we support affected communities over the coming months and years, we should remember that recovery means more than rebuilding homes or neighborhoods. It also means finding ways to promote mental health and emotional well-being for these children. Research has suggested that children benefit from services and supports that help them feel safe, calm, capable of handling challenges, connected to others in the community, and hopeful for the future.
One program that supports long-term disaster-recovery is Camp Noah, a therapeutic camp offered by Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSSMN). LSSMN has hosted Camp Noah across the country, with a mission to bring hope and healing to disaster-impacted communities. Camp Noah provides a structured and safe environment for elementary-age children to face their fears, grieve their losses, identify and share their unique gifts and talents, and plan for their future. Wilder Research recently completed a three-year evaluation of Camp Noah, finding that both children and parents felt that the program had helped participants feel safer and more prepared to handle difficult events in the future. The evaluation also found that Camp Noah was fun – something that is also important to offer children who may have had tremendous disruption in their normal lives and activities. A summary of Camp Noah’s evaluation results are available here.
How Can You Help?
If you know families in disaster-impacted areas, you may want to share resources for helping children cope with these events. Numerous resources exist online, including materials from the National Association of School Psychologists, the Red Cross, the National Institutes of Mental Health, and others.
It is important that we continue to support recovery efforts, especially immediately after a disaster strikes. However, once the headlines fade, please remember that there is ongoing work that needs to be done. Consider supporting agencies that provider longer-term support to children and families, including local mental health providers that specialize in trauma-related services for children.
Consider giving the gift of your time. While funding is usually the immediate need, you can look for other ways to support programs providing needed services. Programs like Camp Noah rely on volunteers to not only organize and run camps, but also to prepare needed materials. Learn more about volunteering with Camp Noah.
Cheryl Holm-Hansen was a senior research manager in Wilder Research, with expertise in child and adolescent mental health, including early childhood mental health, school-based mental health, and recovery from trauma.