When Major Events Happen

January 13, 2022
When Major Events Happen

At our core, we want to have certainty in our lives. When things are uncertain and feel beyond our control, it can leave us with a sense of not feeling safe that contributes to anxiety, worry, and fear. We may also be reminded of other times in our lives when we did not feel safe, and as a result, we may feel more on edge, angry, helpless, or sad.

It is important to remember we are all doing the best we can during these difficult times. Treating others and ourselves with kindness and compassion will promote good mental health and wellness.

North Range Behavioral Health is a provider of Colorado Crisis Services. If you or someone you know is experiencing a behavioral health emergency, walk into 928 12th Street in Greeley, call the state hotline at 844.493.TALK (8255) or text TALK to 38255. These services are available 24/7/365. 

 

Natural Disasters

 

Wildfires

Wildfires cause emotional distress as well as physical damage. People may fear that their loved ones will be killed or injured. Separation from family members can occur, with hours or days passing before being reunited. Neighborhoods and communities may be called on to evacuate on short notice, forcing people to make important decisions in minutes – whether to evacuate, where to go, when to leave and what to bring with them (including pets). People may live in shelters for days, not knowing if their homes and businesses have been saved or lost. Routine is disrupted, and one’s sense of security is undermined. Families and communities should not underestimate the accumulative effects of evacuation, displacement, relocation, and rebuilding.

In the aftermath, and as the scope of the damage is known, families may learn of injuries to loved ones. The loss of homes, pets, livestock, and valuables, including sentimental items, will increase feelings of sadness and vulnerability. If a fire is found to have been set intentionally, people grapple with increased anger and blame. Like other traumatic events, wildfires will be particularly difficult for individuals with special needs.

Post-wildfire problems with housing, food, water, electricity, transportation, work, school, childcare, and daily routines can disrupt living for weeks or months. People suffer financial hardships when their homes, businesses, or jobs are lost. Confusion can mount as they seek disaster assistance from local and federal agencies or their insurance companies. As a result, signs of stress may become evident even months after the fires.


Flood or Flood Danger

Floods are the most common natural weather event and are temporary conditions when an area is overcome by water or mudflow. Floods in our area can occur under many conditions, including snowmelt, overflowing drainage systems, and heavy rainfall.

Areas recovering from wildfire are often prone to flash flooding and debris flows, especially near steep terrain. Rainfall that would normally be absorbed will run off extremely quickly after a wildfire as burned soil can be as water repellant as pavement and, as a result, much less rainfall is required to produce a flash flood.



Common Emotional Reactions

Warning icon Feelings of anxiety, fear, and worry about the safety of self and others (including pets)
Fear icon Fears of the disaster happening again
Anxiety icon Distress and anxiety with reminders of the disaster (e.g., burning smell, sounds of sirens or helicopters, burnt landscape and buildings)
Separation icon Increased fears and worries about separation from family members, resulting in behavior that feels clingier and more insecure



Common Changes in Behavior

Activity icon Increased activity level Sadness icon Sadness
Concentration icon Decreased concentration and attention Sleep icon Changes in sleep and appetite
Irritability icon Increased irritability Interest icon Lack of interest in usual activities
Withdrawal icon Withdrawal Physical icon Increased physical complaints such as headaches, stomachaches, aches, and pains.
Angry icon Angry outbursts Fear icon Generalized or specific fears about the event happening again
Aggression icon Aggression



Suggestions for Coping

  • Pay attention to your needs. Maintain self-care routines which include eating well, sleeping well, getting exercise, and receiving proper medical care.
  • Put off major decisions. Avoid making any unnecessary life-altering decisions during this stressful post-disaster period.
  • Give yourself a break. Tackle clean-up or recovery activities with moderation. Ask for help.
  • Breathe. Find a breathing exercise to promote calmness.
  • Incorporate structure and routines into your day. Find comforting or regulating activities that help you feel safe.
  • Limit media exposure. Focusing on safety is critical during these times. Unchecked exposure to the media may amplify feelings of helplessness and fear.
  • Talk about it. Reaching out to a trusted person or a mental health professional can help reduce feelings of overwhelm and isolation.
  • Help others. We recover and cope better when we help others do the same.
  • Look for hope. Even in the most difficult situations, it helps to identify some positive aspects and stay hopeful for the future.
  • Seek professional help. If children have difficulties for more than six weeks, parents should consult a mental health professional for an evaluation. 



Supporting Children When Major Events Happen or Disaster Strikes

Children may experience additional reactions to major events and disasters and their aftermath. These reactions are strongly influenced by how their parents, teachers, and other caregivers cope during and after the events. In addition to the reactions listed above, children may also experience:

  • Prolonged focus on the disaster or major event. Young children may “play” the event while school-aged children may become intensely preoccupied with the details of the event and want to talk more about it.
  • Lack of interest in usual activities, including interest in playing with friends
  • Changes in school performance
  • Infants and toddlers may react to trauma because of their parents’ anxiety and/or reaction.
  • Preschool-aged children may understand enough to feel helpless and overwhelmed.
  • Feelings of fear and insecurity about being separated from caregivers.
  • Feelings of irritability; crying more than usual or wanting to be cuddled.
  • Regressive behaviors in young children such as baby talk, bed-wetting, tantrums
  • High-risk behaviors in adolescents such as drinking, substance abuse, self-injurious behaviors


Things I Can Do for My Child

Children’s responses to trauma vary according to their age. Generally, children respond by reverting to behavior typical of an earlier developmental stage. It is important to recognize some changes are considered ‘normal’ if they are brief (less than three weeks) in duration. If symptoms continue, you may consider seeking help.

Age

Common Reactions

Helpful Hints


1-4 years


  • Bed-wetting
  • Fear of darkness or being left alone
  • Excessive clinging
  • Nightmares
  • Crying
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Speech difficulties
  • Immobility
  • Confusion
  • Disobedience

 


  • Provide calming words and physical comforting
  • Give frequent attention
  • Establish comforting bedtime routines
  • Encourage expression through re-enactment


5-11 years



  • Thumb-sucking
  • Irritability, whining
  • Clinging
  • Nightmares or fear of darkness
  • Aggression, competition for attention at school or home
  • Withdrawal from peers
  • Loss of interest, poor concentration
  • Headaches or other physical complaints


  • Patience and tolerance
  • Play sessions with adults and peers
  • Discussions with adults and peers
  • Slightly relaxed expectations temporarily
  • Opportunities for structured but not demanding chores and responsibilities
  • Rehearse safety measures


12-17 years



  • Running away
  • Stealing
  • Sleeplessness
  • Difficulties with school or relationships
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Inattentiveness or confusion
  • Aggressiveness, irritability
  • Radical changes in attitude
  • Premature entrance into adulthood


  • Monitor media exposure
  • Spend time as a family talking about how everyone is
    feeling/doing
  • Bring friends and families together
  • Encourage constructive activities
  • Encourage postponing major life decisions
  • Explain that strains on relationships and changes in attitude are common but bounce back over time



The following can help address children’s reactions to major events and disasters:

  • Model calm behavior.
    Changes in living conditions can be extremely stressful for children. Modeling calm behaviors during chaotic times teaches children how to handle stressful situations and take care of themselves. Provide simple and accurate information in a quiet, steady voice.

  • Reaffirm safety.
    Reassure kids that they are safe. Share the plans you have for their safety. Remind them that they can always tell you when they are afraid in any situation. This may need to be repeated many times during recovery.

  • Observe emotional states.
    It may take time for the emotional impact to reach the child or adolescent. When it does, provide nurturance (hugs, empathy, kindness, calm support) and ask about their thoughts and feelings. Be prepared for children to need this several times. Some will not express themselves verbally, but changes in behavior, appetite or sleep patterns can indicate anxiety or stress. Seek help from a mental health professional for those with more intense reactions.

  • Be patient.
    Children may need a little extra patience and attention during these times. They may need added reminders or extra help with chores or homework once school is in session as they may be more distracted.

  • Encourage comforting or regulating activities.
    Children may benefit from doing slow breathing to calm their bodies, having a stuffed animal or blanket to hold, or being distracted from the recent tragedy by dancing, singing, or playing games.

  • Limit media exposure.
    Teach children healthy habits when it comes to media.  Being informed is important, but overexposure to sights and images of the disaster, including those in newspapers, on the Internet, or on television decreases a child’s sense of safety and amplifies the traumatic effects of a major event.

  • Talk, talk, talk.
    Spending time talking with your child will let them know that it is okay to ask questions and to express their concerns. Let children speak about their feelings and validate all reactions to the event. Support the appropriate expression of their feelings and help to put them in perspective.

    • Answer questions briefly and honestly, but also ask your children for their opinions and ideas about what is discussed. If you have to evacuate suddenly, tell your child briefly where you are going and that you will answer their questions once you get to safety.
    • Because of the constantly changing situation, children may have questions on more than one occasion. Issues may need to be discussed more than one time. Remain flexible and open to answering repeated and new questions and providing clarifications.
    • For younger children, try to follow these conversations with a favorite story or a family activity to help them feel safer and calmer.
  • Monitor adult conversations.
    Be aware of what is being said during adult conversations about the disaster and its aftermath. Children may misinterpret what they hear and can be frightened unnecessarily about something they do not understand.

  • Take time to show love.
    You should spend extra time with your children and stay connected. It doesn’t matter whether it’s playing games, reading together, or just cuddling. Be sure to tell children they are loved.

  • Model and encourage self-care.
    Help children help take care of themselves by encouraging them to get appropriate rest, exercise, and diet. Be sure there is a balance of quiet and physical activities.

  • Maintain routines and expectations.
    Even in the midst of chaos and change, children feel more safe and secure with structure and routine. As much as possible, stick to everyday routines (including mealtimes, bedtime, etc.). Stick with family rules, such as rules about good behavior and respect for others.

  • Encourage children to help.
    Children recover and cope better when they feel helpful. Give small tasks related to clean-up or family activities. After children spend time in clean-up activities, provide activities that are not related to the major event or disaster. This may include playing a game, reading a book, playing cards, etc.

  • Give support at bedtime.
    Children may become anxious when they separate from their parents, particularly at bedtime. First, try to spend more time with your child at bedtime with such activities as reading a book. It’s okay to make a temporary arrangement for young children to sleep with you, but with the understanding that they will go back to normal sleeping arrangements at a set future date.

  • Keep things hopeful.
    Even in the most difficult situations, it is important to identify some positive aspects to stay hopeful for the future. A positive and optimistic outlook helps children see the good things in the world around them. This outlook can be one way to help them get through even the most challenging times.

    • Talk about community response and recovery. Reassure children about the work being done in their community (such as first responders protecting us) and all the community helpers who are restoring electricity and water, removing debris, and helping families in need.
    • Calm worries about friends’ safety. As phone service may be disrupted, communication will be difficult. Reassure your children that their friends’ parents are taking care of them just as they are being cared for by you.

  • Seek professional help.
    If children have difficulties for more than six weeks, parents should consult a mental health professional for an evaluation.


Helpful tips for supporting the family system

  • Listen twice as much as you talk.
  • Give clear, simple, and age-appropriate answers. If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s okay to say that.
  • Encourage children to talk about their feelings, worries, daydreams, and distractions. Ask them what they already know.
  • Accept the feelings they share, listen carefully, and remind them that these are normal reactions following a very scary event.
  • Help your children feel safe. Talk with them about their concerns over safety. Go over your family’s communication plan and practice phone numbers. Remind them of ways you keep them safe.
  • Explain that TV, radio, the Internet, and social media can spread rumors and trigger fears.
  • Maintain reasonable expectations or ‘rules.’ Stick with family rules, such as bedtimes, curfews, checking in with you while with friends, and keeping up with homework and chores. Staying in familiar routines as best as possible is reassuring.
  • Address ‘acting out’ behaviors. Help them understand that acting out behaviors are a dangerous way to express strong feelings like anger and grief. Talk about other ways of coping with these feelings, such as fun activities, exercise, writing in a journal, spending time with family and friends.
  • Be patient. It is normal for everyone to have a stress response to any potential threat in the environment. This can lead to a lack of patience.
  • Remember, your loved one is not your enemy.



Additional Resources

National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Ready.gov

American Red Cross

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Emergency Preparedness & Response

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)


North Range Behavioral Health is a provider of Colorado Crisis Services. If you or someone you know is experiencing a behavioral health emergency, walk into 928 12th Street in Greeley, call the state hotline at 844.493.TALK (8255) or text TALK to 38255. These services are available 24/7/365.