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Helping children in the aftermath of the tornado

June 07, 2011


Tips for addressing the psychological casualties of a disaster


Whoever thought less than two weeks after seeing horrifying scenes of total devastation in Joplin, Missouri, where a deadly tornado ripped through the town, western Massachusetts residents would be viewing their own scenes of destruction after a rare tornado struck the area on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 1.


While children are generally more resilient than adults, scenes of houses and buildings destroyed with wreckage of smashed cars and debris filling the streets can be  quite disturbing, noted Dr. Barry Sarvet, chief of Child Psychiatry and vice chair of the Department of Psychiatry for Baystate Medical Center.


“For most children, how a parent responds to the tornado will significantly impact their response. If youngsters see fear and anxiety in their parents who are having trouble coping with the disaster, then it will likely be harder for them to cope, as well,” said Dr. Sarvet.


According to the Baystate Medical Center child psychiatrist, how children respond will also be determined by how close they were to the tragedy.


“If their own home or that of a family member was damaged or destroyed, the potential is greater for them to be traumatized to a more significant degree than those who witnessed the tragedy on television, saw photographs in a newspaper, or heard about it from friends,” said Dr. Sarvet.


“Also, if there is already significant levels of stress and chaos in a family on top
of the disaster, then they may be more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,” he added.


According to Baystate Children’s Hospital and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), parents should be prepared for the following common reactions by children to the recent tornadoes that touched down in the area:

  • Feelings of insecurity, unfairness, anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, despair, and worries about the future.
  • Fear that another tornado will occur.
  • Disruptive behaviors, irritability, temper tantrums, agitation, or hyperactivity.
  • Clinging/dependent behaviors or avoidant and phobic symptoms.
  • Physical symptoms such as stomachaches, headaches, loss of appetite, nightmares, or sleep problems.
  • Increased concern regarding the safety of family members and friends.
  • School-based problems, including decreased motivation and school performance.


Adolescents may differ from younger children in how they respond, including exhibiting:

  • Risky behavior.
  • Social withdrawal, anger and irritability.
  • Conflict with authority.


The NCTSN suggests that parents spend time talking to their children, letting them know that it is okay to ask questions and to share their worries. Although it may  be hard finding time to have these important conversations, parents can use regular family mealtimes or bedtimes to talk. Issues may come up more than once and parents should remain patient and open to answering questions and clarifying the situation. They can let children know, without overwhelming them with information, what is happening in their family, with their school and in the community. Parents should answer questions briefly and honestly and ask their children for their opinions and ideas.


Maintaining routines for children is also important during times of chaos and change, noted Dr. Sarvet, who also suggested that parents limit their child‘s media exposure to graphic images and descriptions of destruction, including those on radio, television, the Internet, and in the newspaper.


Children may recover and cope better when they feel that they can help, said psychologist David Cates, PhD, director, Behavioral Health, Baystate Medical Center.


“Allowing a child to take some kind of action….to help in the clean-up in the wake of the tornado, for example….can reduce their anxiety and allow them to regain a sense of control over their life,” said Cates.


“Even if your home wasn’t directly affected by the tornado, you can still allow your child to participate by raising money or offering food donations for those affected. This is a wonderful way of taking feelings of helplessness and fear and turning them into positive action where a child feels empowered,” he added.


Parents whose children are still having nightmares, recurring thoughts about the tornado, or trouble concentrating 4-6 weeks after the disaster, may have a clinical disorder related to the trauma requiring a call to their primary care physician for a referral to a behavioral health professional.


Staff in the Family Advocacy Center at Baystate Children’s Hospital are trained in providing counseling for children who have been through traumatic experiences.


To make an appointment for therapy services at the Family Advocacy Center, call 413-794-5555.


For more information about Baystate Children’s Hospital and the Family Advocacy Center, visit