Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Coping with Disaster: A Second Guide for Parents and Other Caregivers. (Family * Friends * Community)

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Coping with Disaster: A Second Guide for Parents and Other Caregivers. (Family * Friends * Community)

Article excerpt

The disasters of September 11th, 2001 impacted every individual and community in America. Early reactions to the trauma were intense expressions of shock, sadness, anger, and loss. There was an outpouring of concern for victims, their families, rescue workers, and others who were affected. There was also a concerted effort by parents, educators, and mental health professionals to assist children to cope with and recover from the trauma.

In our first coping guide, we outlined some expected reactions in children. We discussed general suggestions on ways to help all children cope with disaster and specific strategies for children with cognitive disabilities.


In this guide, we maintain an emphasis on children by focusing on the challenges faced by parents. We know that children's coping abilities are closely related to that of family members. Children are very resilient and most will cope over time. A key factor in children's coping, however, is how well their parents manage stress. Parents buffer stress for their children only when they are coping effectively themselves. As such, much of this guide is devoted to helping parents understand and manage their stress. We review how reactions of adults and children have shifted since September 11th and mention some signs of stress to look for. Finally, we discuss challenges for parents of children with disabilities and provide information about seeking mental health supports.

Please note that this guide is intended for the general public. It is not geared specifically for individuals or families with direct losses. Though many of the coping strategies mentioned here might be helpful for directly-traumatized families, we urge them to seek formal supports. For more on how to do this, refer to the last section of this guide.


Six to eight weeks after the September 11th attacks, many have seen their reactions diminish, while others still feel great distress. It is important to remember that even individuals whose only exposure was on television may have traumatic stress. Since adult reactions are so crucial to how children are supported, we focus on them first.

* Feelings may be intense or unpredictable. You may be irritable, sad, sensitive, or moody. You may still be easily startled and have difficulty concentrating, but may also have improvement in these areas.

* Recurring images, thoughts, memories, or dreams may continue. This will be more prominent if you are regularly exposed to images of the events, particularly on television. Sleep problems may persist.

* Physical symptoms such as headaches, upset stomach, and loss of appetite may accompany stress.

* Difficulty maintaining routines is common at first. For individuals directly affected, life has not returned to routine and may not for a long time. For those indirectly affected, most routines have resumed.

* Fears about imminent danger were very common at first and may be reemerging due to concerns about bioterrorism and anthrax. This may lead to concern in some and fear in others.

* Anger over the events may lead to counter-productive and unfair stereotypes and retaliatory behavior.

* Tremendous sense of loss is a universal reaction to the events of September 11th.

* Foreshortened sense of the future may lead to taking stock of one's life and efforts to renew important relationships. Others may respond by thinking the situation is hopeless and retreating from others.

* Anniversary reactions are common. These reactions are in response to painful reminders of the trauma and are heightened by media rebroadcasts. Unexpected triggers, such as siren noise, airplane engines, ash or smoke, can be powerful reminders of traumatic events. In December, end-of-the-year reviews will likely bring multiple TV rebroadcasts of the events; know they are coming and decide how much you want to be exposed. …

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