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Coping with Stress

Children and a Natural Disaster: From Fear to Hope

Kathleen A. Olson, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency

Reviewed May 2013 by the author.

In the aftermath of the floods in Minnesota, children, like many adults, have no way to understand the unimaginable. It is normal to be frightened after these types of events.

Also like adults, children do best with certainty, predictability and stability in their lives. Tragedy can turn those elements upside down and bring chaos. A consequence of chaos is powerlessness — that sickening sense that you are unable to effect any change in circumstances whatsoever for the better. After powerlessness comes either anger or depression and sometimes both, then despair.

Children, particularly young children, will gain their sense of safety and security first from their parents and secondly from other adults. They will look to their parent’s reactions to help them interpret their own and then they will look to be comforted by them.

The challenge for parents in view of the needs of children is to manage negative reactions so they do not spill over on the children. This doesn't mean that parents or other adults should hide their reactions, but share them in such a way that children know their fears are reasonable, and that parents will do their best to protect their children from harm. This legitimizes their experience and feelings, yet provides a positive future orientation that all will be well in time — with patience.

Consider the following suggestions to help children better cope with the situation.

Try to limit re-traumatization, as best as possible. Shelter children from ongoing images of the flood that only contribute to fear, turmoil and upset. Limit exposure to continuing news stories and hold adult conversations out of earshot of the children.

Provide structure. Two elements of structure are routine and activity. The activity may relate to a routine such as preparing food for mealtime. Routines and activities help regain a sense of control when all else feels out of control.

Listen to fears and acknowledge them, but remain reassuring. Children experience the same feelings as adults, so it is important and reasonable to validate their feelings while keeping a positive future orientation.

Do good deeds, however small, by helping others. Doing good deeds helps overcome the sense of powerlessness and cascade of negative emotions. It empowers children and adults alike and is a potent antidote to powerlessness.

As you concentrate on the needs of children, it helps parents and other adults to re-focus in the aftermath of tragedy and find purpose and meaning.

Related Resources

Partnering for School Success — Builds strong parent-child relationships through education and collaboration.

Extreme Weather — Extension resources for floods, wind damage, winter impacts, and more.

It’s Important to Talk with Children about Natural Disasters — Make time to ask questions and listen; be available.

After the Natural Disaster: Managing Anger — Change how you see things, say how you feel, and calm down.

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