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Honesty, Patience Best Medicine for Kids Scared by Fire : Trauma: How do you help a child deal with the horrors of Wednesday's disaster? Talk and listen, an expert advises.

October 29, 1993|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the confusion of Wednesday night's firestorm, a TV reporter approached a tearful looking girl waiting to hear from her parents in a temporary shelter, and asked, "How are you feeling?"

So far, so good.

She told him and he walked away, saying, "Well, best of luck to you."

Wrong.

\f7 Child-stress expert Melinda Sprague says the last thing traumatized children need is to believe that they are helpless or that their fate hangs on luck. Worse, she said, "You don't open a wound and walk away."

But children do need a chance to express their fears, anxieties and anger, as do the adults trying to help them, said Sprague, project director for Reducing Exceptional Stress and Trauma, a post-riot project funded by the state Department of Education to teach child-care workers to help children deal with trauma and stress caused by disasters.

"One of the things we learned out of the uprisings was that we as adults have to be free enough to deal with our own fears. Otherwise, we won't be emotionally accessible to children," she said.

Fire, its unpredictability, its panic-triggering smell, can produce unique feelings of helplessness and symptoms of post-traumatic stress, Sprague said.

"Fire is like earthquakes. Things disappear. They're gone. Fire takes away a sense of centering, and can take away resources whether it's a workplace, where I buy my food or go to the cleaners. So the physical loss is significant and it doesn't come back quickly.

"There are a lot of pain issues around separation anxiety: Where's my house? Where's my dog? Is my mom OK? Where's Grandma?"

No matter whether children have experienced the disaster or just watched it on TV, they wonder, "Am I safe? Is my mommy or daddy safe?" Young children may regress with bed-wetting, thumb-sucking or fear of monsters, the dark or noises.

Children under 5 need to keep their normal routine and have access to self-expressive tools, such as art or dramatic play, Sprague said.

Similar to the repetition of reading a favorite book, parents should expect and encourage children to restate their questions and feelings about the disaster, rather than cutting them off with "We've talked about that already."

School-age children need to talk about it and keep talking about it to make sense of the experience, Sprague said.

"For those going into adolescence, talking in small groups can be critical," she said. Routines are also important, but just as adults might feel like staying home from work, they need to have flexibility regarding chores or schoolwork after a disaster.

Children need to be reassured about their personal safety. But if you are looking out your window at flames, it's best to be realistic and to talk about your strategies--what you will pack, where you will go. Packing a bag might actually be reassuring to both adults or children.

With many children spending most of their waking hours with caregivers, it is important for working parents to prepare a plan in advance so children know who will be responsible for them and where the parents will find them, Sprague said. Some people arrange to phone a relative in another state to avoid the problem many experienced this week when local lines were clogged.

The child on TV who didn't know where her parents were might have been helped with a prearranged plan, Sprague said. "She didn't know what the next step was. She's wondering, 'Am I supposed to be doing something?' She needs to be released from that and know her job is to wait and her parents will find her."

In the aftermath, older children can feel empowered by doing something for other people who were affected. They might wrap toys, take food or water to people, or take care of animals.

Exercise is also a stress reducer, Sprague said. Not only does exercise reduce stress, but spending time together can be even more important to children now.

And often in helping children, parents can help themselves, she said.

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