Helping Children Cope with Disaster

September 22, 2022

Natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, fires or floods are frightening for adults, but they can be especially traumatic for children.  During a disaster, children will look to the adults in their lives for comfort. How you react to an emergency gives them clues about how to act.  If you react with alarm, a child may become more scared. Keep calm and composed. Children are able to cope better with a traumatic event if parents, friends, family, teachers and other adults are good role models. Talk about your feelings in the aftermath of the event.

A child’s reaction also depends on how much devastation is witnessed. If friends or neighbors have been killed or injured, or if the neighborhood, school or home has been damaged, trauma is more severe. Similarly, the loss of pets or prized processions is very upsetting for all.

It is important to remember that some children may never show distress because they don’t feel upset, while others may not show evidence of being upset for several weeks or even months. Other children may not show a change in behavior, but may still need your help.

Age will also affect how a child will respond to a disaster. For example, six-year-olds may show their concerns about a traumatic event by refusing to attend school, whereas adolescents may minimize their concerns but argue more with parents and show a decline in school performance. It is important to clearly discuss the disaster with children of all ages.


Some Behaviors Children May Exhibit After a Disaster

  • Return to earlier behavior, such as thumb sucking or bed wetting
  • Clinging to parents; fear of leaving home
  • Reluctance to go to bed
  • Fear that the disaster will reoccur
  • Become easily upset, crying and whining
  • Nightmares or difficulty sleeping
  • Problems at school and inability to concentrate
  • Symptoms of illness, such as headaches, vomiting or fever
  • Acting out, delinquent behavior, drug use, withdrawal from the family


What Parents and Other Caring Adults Can Do to Help

  • Talk with your child about his or her feelings as well as your own. You will find that many of your feelings are shared, regardless of your child’s age.
  • Encourage your child to draw pictures of the disaster or write a story of the frightening event. This will help you understand how he or she views what happened.
  • Assure your child that you will be there to take care of him or her. Provide frequent reassurance.
  • Stay together as a family as much as possible.
  • Relax rules, but maintain family structure and responsibility.
  • Spend extra time with your child, especially at bedtime.
  • Limit your child’s exposure to additional trauma, including news reports and social media.
  • Don’t minimize the disaster.
  • Find ways to emphasize to your child that you love her or him.
  • Allow your child to grieve losses. Acknowledge your own fear and grief.
  • Hold your child. Touching provides extra reassurance that someone is there for her or him


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