Helping Your Child Cope with Disaster
Kathleen A. Olson, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency
Reviewed May 2015 by Ellie M. McCann, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency.
After experiencing the uncertainty of a natural disaster, it's normal for children to be afraid. The fear may last for an extended period of time and is best dealt with by the kindness and understanding of the parents. Children should be encouraged to talk about their feelings and otherwise express their fears through play, drawing, painting, or clay. Research indicates that children's fears vary according to age, maturation, and previous learning experiences. Four major fears common in children are death, darkness, animals, and abandonment. During a disaster, children could have encountered several of these fears. To help children cope with fears, one of the most important steps adults can take is to talk with children.
Following a disaster, some children may:
- Be upset at the loss of a favorite toy, blanket, teddy bear, etc.
- Be angry, showing signs of aggression such as hitting, throwing, or kicking.
- Become more active, restless, and irritable.
- Be afraid of the disaster recurring.
- Be afraid to be left alone, or afraid to sleep alone. Children may want to sleep with a parent or another person. They may have nightmares.
- Behave as they did when younger. They may start sucking their thumb, wetting the bed, asking for a bottle, or wanting to be held.
- Have symptoms of illness such as nausea, vomiting, headaches, fever, or not wanting to eat.
- Be quiet and withdrawn, not wanting to talk about the experience.
- Have poor concentration.
- Become upset easily — crying and whining frequently.
- Feel guilty that they caused the disaster because of some previous behavior.
- Feel neglected by parents who are busy trying to clean up and rebuild their lives.
- Refuse to go to school or their childcare provider or withdraw from activities and friends. The child may not want to be out of the parent's sight.
- Become afraid of loud noises, rain or storms, or other reminders of the disaster.
- Not show any outward sign of being upset. Some children may never show distress because they do not feel upset. Other children may not give evidence of being upset until several weeks or months later.
What can parents do to help their children cope?
Stay calm. Your calm presence gives reassurance to your child.
Talk with your child. Answer their questions with simple, accurate answers.
Talk honestly with your child about your own feelings.
Listen to what your child says and how your child says it. Is there fear, anxiety, or insecurity? Repeating the child's words may be very helpful, such as "You are afraid that..." or "You wonder if the flood will come again tonight." This helps both you and the child clarify feelings.
Reassure your child and normalize their feelings. "We are together. We care about you. We will take care of you." You may need to repeat information and reassurances many times. Do not stop responding just because you told the child once or even a dozen times. Be an empathetic listener and let them know their reactions are normal.
Hold your child. Provide comfort. Touching is important for children during this period. Close contact helps assure children that you are there for them and will not abandon them.
Routines make your child feel safe. Spend extra time putting your child to bed. Talk and offer assurance. Leave a night light on if that makes the child feel more calm.
Observe your child at play. Listen to what is said and how the child plays. Frequently children express feelings of fear or anger while playing after a major disaster. Don't discourage their play because it upsets you; it's an important way for children to cope.
Emphasize resiliency. Help children think about what they have done in the past that has helped them to deal with a situation when they are upset. This will help them to focus on their coping skills.
Children look to the important adults in their life for cues on how to manage their reactions to an event. Remember that children's fears may be intensified when adults discuss the topic with children. To help children cope with fears, one of the most important steps adults can take is to share and make time to talk with children.
Harrelson, P. O.N. (2009). Communicating with Young Children. Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Lazarus, P. J., Jimerson, S. R., & Brock, S. E. (2003). Helping children after a natural disaster: Information for parents and teachers. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
Zero to Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families. (2014). Coping After a Natural Disaster.
Extreme Weather — Extension resources for floods, wind damage, winter impacts, and more.
Getting Through Tough Times: Controlling Stress —Get tips for taking care of yourself and knowing when to seek help. Part of the Getting Through Tough Times series.
After a Natural Disaster: Parenting 0-5 Year Olds — Helping children between the ages of 0-5 cope with disasters.