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Children and Disaster
By Kelly Lemmon-Kishi MSW CTS [24 September 1999]

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Find out how to contribute to the Turkey and Taiwan earthquake appeals on the MixPizza website.

"Oh my God! What if that one had hi 5tt Tokyo...".

Since the recent devastating earthquake in Taiwan can do no other good, let it shake you out of your complacency. Earthquakes are a fact of life in Japan - yet their terrifying power makes many otherwise intelligent people act like ostriches. Advance planning can save your life and the life of your family - and please remember to include your kids!

The following are a few suggestions about helping kids cope with disaster and the threat of disaster, based on my experiences as a therapist and disaster responder in Kobe in 1995 and what I have learned since:

  • Be cautious about watching too much TV coverage of big disasters.
  • Involve kids in basic preparations including development of family emergency plans.
  • Know the impact of traumatic events on adults and on children.
  • Learn how adults can help children deal with traumatic events
  • Know the difference between what's normal, what may signal a need for further assistance

Be cautious about watching too much TV coverage of big disasters elsewhere
While we all want our kids to know what is happening in the world, much of the recent media coverage is not appropriate for children to watch in large doses. Be aware of how much and what kind of reports you children are watching.

At different ages, children have different abilities to comprehend and process the images they are seeing. They may draw surprising and scary conclusions from what they see and hear. It is very important for parents to talk to their children about the Taiwan earthquake and media coverage to help the children put it into perspective. The discussions should of course be age appropriate.

Children under the age of 7 or so should have minimal exposure - they are more likely to be scared or confused than educated by what they are seeing. Up until age 12 or 13, it may be hard for children to understand that the images are real (not a movie) and also that the devastation in Taiwan does not pose an immediate threat to them. Even older teens may need help to understand what the events in Taiwan mean for them here in Japan.

Watching images of immense disaster for long periods of time can frighten, numb, confuse, and depress adults - it's even more disorienting for children.

Involve kids in basic preparations including development of family emergency plans
No matter how your kids come to understand that earthquakes are a part of living here, family emergency plans are essential - as is children's participation in creating them. Such plans include:

  • Emergency food and water supplies - enough for everybody for 4 days assuming no electricity or running water
  • Creating a household environment that minimizes danger during disaster (securing book cases, cabinets, and beds so they won't topple over; latches on cupboards containing dishes and breakables; making sure nothing heavy will fall on sleepers, etc.)
  • The Emergency Plan - what every family member is expected to do in the event of an emergency - should be in writing. All independently mobile family members should carry a copy detailing meeting points, emergency contact information, and contingency plans. Most people can't think clearly in the chaos following a disaster - having a plan and carrying a copy will help.

It is very reassuring for children to know that there is a plan and to take part in creating one. It gives them a sense of control over otherwise overpowering events.

Know the impact of traumatic events on adults and on children.
If the worst happens, be prepared to feel, think, and behave in usual ways!
All of the following are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL events for adults and children...

irregular heartbeat*
blood in stool*
numbness or paralysis of body parts*
chest pain*
difficulty breathing*
rapid heart rate
elevated blood pressure
visual difficulties
painful body tension
grinding of teeth
physical weakness
profuse sweating
"muffled" hearing
tunnel vision
feeling of a "lump in the throat"
menstrual cycle changes
backaches/psychosomatic pains
sleeplessness or sleepiness
muscle tremors and twitches
decreased coordination
increased vulnerability to injury and disease
flare ups of allergies, arthritis, and other chronic conditions or illnesses in remission

* Get a medical evaluation immediately - don't assume it's just "stress"

Effects on THINKING
Even the calmest and smartest of people will experience substantial negative effects on their thinking. Don't underestimate how much this may effect you, your family members, co-workers, disaster responders, etc. ...
poor attention
short attention span
poor decision making
poor concentration
memory problems
poor abstract thinking
intrusive mental images
loss of objectivity
heightened or lowered alertness
difficulty calculating and setting priorities
increased or decreased awareness of surroundings
difficulty differentiating current and past traumatic events
temporary loss of (unnecessary) cognitive abilities such as second languages
excessive preoccupation with possible future disasters
flashbacks (involuntary, intrusive, and very vivid "reliving" of the event)

Cognitive changes in children -
temporary loss of recently gained cognitive abilities - they may literally no longer be able to understand or perform activities that were routine the day before the disaster. Expect this and no not punish or shame the child.

Be prepared for the anger ... it will come out at almost anything once the numbness wears off (which is usually about the time that basic safety needs have been met) ...
emotional shock
extreme irritability
loss of emotional control
intense anger
suspicion and paranoia
feeling overwhelmed

self doubt
elation for having survived
guilt over surviving or being lucky
inappropriate emotional responses
excessive worries about safety
feeling "heroic" or invulnerable

Children will generally display emotions like a much younger child - particularly being clingy, dependent, sulky, or immature. They will be UNABLE to control their emotions in the way they easily could the day before the disaster. Plan for this, accommodate the child's emotional expression as much as possible, and remember that they will get back to "normal" soon (although it may feel like a very long time to a stressed out parent).

Adolescents may feel "invulnerable" or "chosen for a special mission in life" since they survived. Others may ask some important and difficult questions about the meaning of life and suffering, may question or reject religious beliefs.

Common BEHAVIORAL Changes

  • changes in activity, speech patterns, usual communications, or sexual functioning
  • decreased efficiency and effectiveness (at almost everything except starting arguments)
  • withdrawal from friends, family, and previous hobbies
  • eating and/or sleeping more or less than before
  • increased alcohol, tobacco, and other drug consumption / loss of sobriety
  • inability to rest, relax, or sit still
  • antisocial acts
  • hyper alertness to environment
  • erratic movements/ loss of coordination and agility
  • exaggerated startle reflex (jumping at every sound)
  • pacing
  • fighting with family, friends, service providers etc.
  • obsessive preoccupation with media coverage of the earthquake

Be prepared for:

  • bedwetting (use plastic bags to protect bedding for children up through junior high school for at least a few nights. If there's no running water you won't be able to wash)
  • clinging to care givers (just when you have a million things to do and no baby-sitterÖ)
  • whining (just when you have a short fuse, it can seem like the child is trying to light it...)
  • generally acting like a much younger child (thumb sucking, unable to accomplish previously routine tasks) - maybe half the age of the actual child.
  • Adolescents, of course,are the exception. They may take risks due to a (faulty) assumption that if they survived this, they are invulnerable.

Learn how adults can help children deal with traumatic events
If you read through the above list thoroughly, you're well on your way: when you are stressed to the max and feeling overwhelmed or irritable, your kids will need you the most and behave in ways that are surprising, draining, and disappointing (if you're not prepared). Try:

  • Remember that these "set backs" are expected, normal, unintentional - and will soon pass.
  • Remind your children, too. They can probably remember behaving "more maturely" and may be upset at their "lack of control".
  • Give your children as much emotional comfort and physical contact as you can - this will help them heal and recover faster.
  • Provide containment and gentle discipline for unsafe, unacceptable, or provocative behaviors. Just because behaving immaturely is normal doesn't mean you have to put up with everything.
  • TAKE CARE OF YOUR OWN EMOTIONAL NEEDS. You have to take care of yourself so you can take care of your kids. Take advantage of any reasonable offers of assistance to MAKE TIME for stress management and relaxation.

What's normal, what may signal a need for further assistance
All of the above symptoms are normal. Unpleasant but very normal. Go with your gut instinct, though, if you are worried about your child's adjustment - a consultation can't hurt and may help tremendously.

Signs that all is not well

  • Prolonged preoccupation with death, talk about suicide,or excessively risky behavior
  • Remaining substantially regressed for more than a few weeks after the situation has been stabilized and either regressing further or showing no signs of progress.
  • Somatic complaints, excessive irritability, or withdrawal that last more than a few weeks after things stabilize.
  • Substantial negative changes in self esteem, self care, personality, social activities, and interests
These apply specifically to children who were not seriously injured and are not grieving the loss of a close friend or relative. The more disruption and loss a child experienced, the longer they will show signs of traumatic stress reactions and more likely they will benefit from early intervention.

Kelly Lemmon-Kishi MSW CTS is a social worker in private practice in Osaka. In addition to providing individual, family, and group therapy, she provides comprehensive disaster response services including pre-disaster planning and training as well as post disaster response. She is the President of International Mental Health Providers - Japan, the first national network for the people providing professional mental health services to the international communities in Japan. The main inspiration for founding this organization was her experiences in coordinating the psychosocial disaster response after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. She will be providing disaster response training in both Tokyo and Osaka this winter.

She first arrived in Japan in 1986; has lived here since 1993. 1 daughter, born in Osaka in 1996; currently 1 foster child living with and another who visits on weekends.

You can contact her at KLK[at]resolutions.org and check out her website at www.resolutions.org

Download this article:
ChildrenandDisaster.doc (Microsoft Word 6 file 39K)
Copyright 1999 - Kelly Lemmon-Kishi MSW CTS
This article may be copied and freely distributed IF 1) the copyright is noted and 2) the materials are distributed for free. Any materials that are not free require the written permission of the director of Resolutions Counseling Service

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