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Parent Tips for Helping Infants and Toddlers after Disasters

If your child has problems sleeping, doesn’t want to go to bed, won’t sleep alone, wakes up at night screaming

Understand

  • When children are scared, they want to be with people who help them feel safe, and they worry when you are not together.
  • If you were separated during the disaster, going to bed alone may remind your child of that separation.
  • Bedtime is a time for remembering because we are not busy doing other things. Children often dream about things they fear and can be scared of going to sleep.

Ways to help

  • If you want, let your child sleep with you. Let him know this is just for now.
  • Have a bedtime routine: a story, a prayer, cuddle time. Tell him the routine (every day), so he knows what to expect.
  • Hold him and tell him that he is safe, that you are there and will not leave. Understand that he is not being difficult on purpose. This may take time, but when he feels safer, he will sleep better.

If your child worries something bad will happen to you (You may also have worries like this)

Understand

  • It is natural to have fears like this after being in danger.
  • These fears may be even stronger if your child was separated from loved ones during the disaster.

Ways to help

  • Remind your child and yourself that right now you are safe.
  • If you are not safe, talk about how you are working to keep her safe.
  • Make a plan for who would care for your child if something did happen to you. This may help you worry less.
  • Do positive activities together to help her think about other things.

If your child cries or complains whenever you leave him, even when you go to the bathroom

If your child can’t stand to be away from you

Understand

  • Children who cannot yet speak or say how they feel may show their fear by clinging or crying.
  • Goodbyes may remind your child of any separation you had related to the disaster.
  • Children’s bodies react to separations (stomach sinks, heart beats faster). Something inside says, “Oh no, I can’t lose her.”
  • Your child is not trying to manipulate or control you. He is scared.
  • He may also get scared when other people (not just you) leave. Goodbyes make him scared.

Ways to help

  • Try to stay with your child and avoid separations right now.
  • For brief separations (store, bathroom), help your child by naming his feelings and linking them to what he has been through. Let him know you love him and that this goodbye is different, you’ll be back soon. “You’re so scared. You don’t want me to go because last time I was gone you didn’t know where I was. This is different, and I’ll be right back.”
  • For longer separations, have him stay with familiar people, tell him where you are going and why, and when you will come back. Let him know you will think about him. Leave a photo or something of yours and call if you can. When you come back, tell him you missed him, thought about him, and did come back. You will need to say this over and over.

If your child has problems eating, eats too much or refuses food

Understand

  • Stress affects your child in different ways, including her appetite.
  • Eating healthfully is important, but focusing too much on eating can cause stress and tension in your relationship.

Ways to help

  • Relax. Usually, as your child’s level of stress goes down, her eating habits will return to normal. Don’t force your child to eat.
  • Eat together and make meal times fun and relaxing.
  • Keep healthy snacks around. Young children often eat on the go.
  • If you are worried, or if your child loses a significant amount of weight, consult a pediatrician.

If your child is not able to do things he used to do (like use the potty)

If your child does not talk like he used to

Understand

  • Often when young children are stressed or scared, they temporarily lose abilities or skills they recently learned.
  • This is the way young children tell us that they are not okay and need our help.
  • Losing an ability after children have gained it (like starting to wet the bed again) can make them feel ashamed or embarrassed. Caregivers should be understanding and supportive.
  • Your child is not doing this on purpose.

Ways to help

  • Avoid criticism. It makes him worried that he’ll never learn.
  • Do not force your child. It creates a power struggle.
  • Instead of focusing on the ability (like not using the potty), help your child feel understood, accepted, loved, and supported.
  • As your child feels safer, he will recover the ability he lost.

If your child is reckless, does dangerous things

Understand

  • It may seem strange, but when children feel unsafe, they often behave in unsafe ways.
  • It is one way of saying, “I need you. Show me I’m important by keeping me safe.“

Ways to help

  • Keep her safe. Calmly go and get her and hold her if necessary.
  • Let her know that what she is doing is unsafe, that she is important, and you wouldn’t want anything to happen to her.
  • Show her other more positive ways that she can have your attention.

If your child is scared by things that did not scare her before

Understand

  • Young children believe their parents are all-powerful and can protect them from anything. This belief helps them feel safe.
  • Because of what happened, this belief has been damaged, and without it, the world is a scarier place.
  • Many things may remind your child of the disaster (ambulances, people yelling, a scared look on your face), and will scare her.
  • It is not your fault – it was the disaster.

Ways to help

  • When your child is scared, talk to her about how you will keep her safe.
  • If things remind your child of the disaster and cause her to worry that it is happening again, help her understand how what is happening now (like people yelling) is different from the disaster.
  • If she talks about monsters, join her in chasing them out. “Go away monster. Don’t bother my baby. I’m going to tell the monster boo, and it will get scared and go away. Boo, boo.”
  • Your child is too young to understand and recognize how you did protect her, but remind yourself of the good things you did.

If your child seems “hyper”, can’t sit still, and doesn’t pay attention to anything

Understand

  • Fear can create nervous energy that stays in our bodies.
  • Adults sometimes pace when worried. Young children run, jump, and fidget.
  • When our minds are stuck on bad things, it is hard to pay attention to other things.
  • Some children are naturally active.

Ways to help

  • Help your child to recognize his feelings (fear, worry) and reassure your child that he is safe.
  • Help your child get rid of nervous energy (stretching, running, sports, breathing deep and slow).
  • Sit with him and do an activity you both enjoy (throw a ball, read books, play, draw). Even if he doesn’t stop running around, this helps him.
  • If your child is naturally active, focus on the positive. Think of all the energy he has to get things done, and find activities that fit his needs.

If your child plays in a violent way

If your child keeps talking about the disaster and the bad things he saw

Understand

  • Young children often talk through play. Violent play can be their way of telling us how crazy things were or are, and how they feel inside.
  • When your child talks about what happened, strong feelings may come up both for you and your child (fear, sadness, anger).

Ways to help

  • If you can tolerate it, listen to your child when he “talks.”
  • As your child plays, notice the feelings he has and help him by naming feelings and being there to support him (hold him, soothe him).
  • If he gets overly upset, spaces out, or he plays out the same upsetting scene, help him calm down, help him feel safe, and consider getting professional help.

If your child is now very demanding and controlling

If your child seems “stubborn” insisting that things be done her way

Understand

  • Between the age of 18 months to 3 years, young children often seem “controlling.”
  • It can be annoying, but it is a normal part of growing up and helps them learn that they are important and can make things happen.
  • When children feel unsafe, they may become more controlling than usual. This is one way of dealing with fears. They are saying, “Things are so crazy I need control over something.”

Ways to help

  • Remember your child is not controlling or bad. This is normal, but may be worse right now because she feels unsafe.
  • Let your child have control over small things. Give her choices over what she wears or eats, games you play, stories you read. If she has control over small things, it can make her feel better. Balance giving her choices and control with giving her structure and routines. She will feel unsafe if she “runs the show.”
  • Cheer her on as she tries new things. She can also feel more in control when she can put her shoes on, put a puzzle together, pour juice.

Contact

You are welcome to send us a message using the following contact:

Bundespsychotherapeutenkammer (BPtK)

Klosterstraße 64, 10179 Berlin

E-Mail: info@bptk.de

Tel.: 030 278785-0

Fax: 030 278785-44