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Coping with Stress

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After a Natural Disaster: Parenting Adolescents

Kari Robideau, Extension Educator — Youth Development

Reviewed July 2015 by the author.

For an adolescent, a natural disaster presents both opportunity and challenge. Adults can support young people by considering their current developmental tasks and how the additional task of experiencing and processing a disaster impacts them.

How Adolescents React

Severe natural disasters tend to occur infrequently in the same area. For many teens, the current event is their first experience as an active participant because they may not have been born or they were a young child during the last occurrence. As with all new experiences, young people will look to trusted adults in their life for cues on how to react, where to get information and their role in the community response.

Teenagers are able to see issues from many perspectives, in contrast to younger children who see things in absolute, black-and-white terms. This allows the teen to question other people's assertions and less likely to accept "fact" as they once did. For example, they may partake in debate-like conversations surrounding the disaster when watching news coverage. Youth may also develop an opinion on the governments' response to the situation. This is not an effort on a teen's part to be "argumentative," but to practice and experiment with this new skill.

Adolescents will consider other people's perspectives and develop an understanding of how the disaster has made them feel. Youth will benefit from engaging in community service followed by an intentional conversation to process their experience. Young people report a high sense of personal competence and satisfaction when they are able to help others. Recognizing the important work teens accomplish before, after and during a natural disaster is crucial to them defining themselves within the event.

In contrast, young people also experience an intense developmental period of self-awareness. This can lead to a belief that his or her experiences are unique. When a disaster destroys or changes a young person's belongings, it can be hard for them to imagine anyone else could feel as bad as they do. A teenager who had to sleep in a younger sibling's room after a flood destroyed her basement bedroom experienced intense anger and frustration about having to wait to repair the room until the basement dried out. She told her parents, "This isn't fair, you don't understand how difficult this is for me!" Acknowledging feelings, listening to concerns and involvement in appropriate decisions, and activities during the "rebuild" process are all beneficial for teens.

What You Can Do

Beware of giving "adult" responsibilities and worries to youth. If finances, for example, become a struggle as a result of the disaster, young people should not "take it on" as their own problem or responsibility. Telling a teenager that they will need to choose between two activities or using the phrase, "That is not where we are spending our money today" instead of, "We can't afford it" will help youth make appropriate financial decisions without causing an additional stress on them.

It is important for adults closest to the teenager to recognize the difference between feeling sad and being depressed. Losses experienced during a natural disaster need to be expressed, talked about, and dealt with. Depression is a term used to describe an enduring period of sadness. If a young person is having difficulty getting "out" of their sadness and unable to resume normal activities within a period of time, professional services should be sought.

With the help of caring adults, the experience of a natural disaster will challenge a young person as well as give him opportunity to use the skills and abilities developed in adolescence.


Arnett, J. J. (2007). Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood (3rd ed.). Pearson: Prentice Hall.

Steinberg, L. (2008). Adolescence (8th ed.). McGraw-Hill.

Related resources

Sad or Depressed? Know the Difference — Get to know the signs in determining if you are depressed and/or would benefit from professional help

Families with Teens — Strengthens parent-teen relationships by improving communication and decision-making skills.

Common Stresses for Parents of TeensIowa State University Extension — Find ways to manage new conflicts and stressors that develop as the parent-child relationship changes during the teen years. Part of the Stress: Taking Charge series.

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