Skip to main content

Helping kids recover and feel safe

By Melissa J. Brymer, Special to CNN
updated 8:20 AM EDT, Thu May 23, 2013
Two girls stand in rubble in Moore, Oklahoma. Melissa Brymer says parents can help kids by being honest and listening.
Two girls stand in rubble in Moore, Oklahoma. Melissa Brymer says parents can help kids by being honest and listening.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Melissa Brymer: Children need special attention to cope with trauma and upheaval
  • She says fear, anxiety, anger, withdrawal are common, but they diminish over time
  • Brymer: Kids look to parents' reaction; parents must talk to them calmly and truthfully
  • Brymer: Sticking to routines and being patient, staying away from media very important

Editor's note: Melissa J. Brymer is the director of the Terrorism and Disaster Programs at the UCLA/Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

(CNN) -- Many of the Oklahoma families whose lives were devastated by the tornado will recover over time, especially with the help and support of family and community. But children need special attention as they struggle with what happened on Monday and upheavals in their family and school routines.

Children's reactions will vary depending on their age and their experience with the tornado. They may get upset during a storm because they fear another tornado or worry when their parents leave their side. They might display changes in their behavior, such as irritability and anger or decreased concentration. They may withdraw or have physical complaints, and sleep or appetite troubles. It's reassuring to know these reactions are common and generally diminish over time.

Melissa Brymer
Melissa Brymer

Their reactions are strongly influenced by how their parents, teachers and other caregivers are coping. Those teachers who took care of their students during the storm will need to seek their own supports and take care of themselves while showing kids how to cope in a positive way. Parents can help children recover by calmly talking with them about any concerns. This will be important over the weeks and months to come.

Mother's instinct saves lives of 3 sons

Parents must assure children that they are safe and help them cope with distress associated with reminders of the tornado -- like sirens or the destruction they see. They should stick to normal mealtime and bedtime routines as much as possible. Adults should also be careful what they and others say in front of the kids and be especially patient with changes in children's behavior.

Rest, exercise and a balanced diet are important. It helps to limit media reports and social media about the tornado. People should stay connected to friends and family and find time for activities that give them a break from additional stress.

Boy, neighbor embrace after tornado
Desperate mom finds sons in hospital
Tornado survivor: 'I just got lucky'

If the children have lost a loved one, it's important to talk about it. Parents can reminisce about that person with their kids and conduct a memorial activity that children can join in. Grieving is even more difficult when a loved one dies suddenly in traumatic circumstances. Families need their own traditions and rituals when someone dies so they can support one another and manage a wide range of emotional responses. Answering questions about death for children can be challenging -- it's important to be truthful, give answers that are appropriate for their ages and listen carefully to their feelings.

Families remember tornado victims

The tornado hit during the day when children and parents were separated. Because of that, young children may become especially clingy and worry when they are away from their parents. In the next weeks, parents should stay with their children as much as possible. If they need to leave, they should make sure a familiar adult is with the children and that they know when their parents will return.

If any of these reactions continue over a month or worsen over time, parents should consider a mental health consultation.As the community begins to recover, be sure to acknowledge the high school seniors who are graduating in the next week, as this is an important milestone to be commemorated. With the ending of school, some teenagers may have lost their summer jobs and it will be important to help them find alternatives like assisting recovery efforts, cleaning debris, babysitting, or organizing collection drives.

Doctor's quick thinking saves patients

It's two years this week that tornadoes hit Joplin, Missouri, which is still recovering. With other recent disasters like Sandy Hook, parents are increasingly worried about their children's safety. Families should take this opportunity to make sure that school and family emergency plans are in place. That, and open communication will go a long way toward supporting children with their responses to this devastating tornado.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Melissa Brymer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT