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Helping kids recover and feel safe

By Melissa J. Brymer, Special to CNN
May 23, 2013 -- Updated 1220 GMT (2020 HKT)
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.

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

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