After a Natural Disaster: Parenting 0–5 Year Olds
Ellie M. McCann, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency
Revised July 2015 by the author.
Natural disasters can leave young children feeling confused and insecure. Children respond to trauma and stress in different ways and at different times during the event.
How Children React
Children up to five years old may find it hard to adjust to change and loss. Children this age also have not yet developed their own coping skills, so they depend on parents and family members to help them deal with difficult situations. Just as a young child watches their parents' response as a stranger approaches, children observe how their parents react to stress and pick up on their reaction. Children look to important adults to find out how to manage their reactions after the immediate threat. Knowing how children may respond at this age can help parents and other adults recognize problems and react appropriately.
Very young children may regress to an earlier behavioral stage after a traumatic event. Infants may become clingy. Toddlers may want items they have given up such as a blanket, pacifier, or other security item. They may cling to a parent or become very attached to a place where they feel safe.
Preschoolers may experience changes in eating and sleeping habits. They may also experience unexplainable aches and pains. Other behavior changes to watch for are increases in misbehavior or hyperactivity, speech difficulties, and aggressive or withdrawn behavior. A preschool child may tell exaggerated stories about the difficult event or may speak of it over and over again. Be patient with them as they process their experience by repeating themselves. Their mind is only able to see things through their point of view, so their description may sound "self-centered," yet it is simply their perspective.
What You Can Do
Parents provide reassurance in a variety of ways during a traumatic time. Very young children need a lot of time being physically close by cuddling and being near their parents day to day. They also benefit from verbal support. Try these strategies for helping your child cope:
- Answer questions about the disaster honestly, but do not dwell on the horrible details or allow the subject to dominate family time for the long term.
- Encourage children to express their emotions through positive outlets such as drawing, talking, or painting, as well as finding ways to help others who were affected by the disaster.
- Try to maintain a normal daily routine and encourage children to engage in physical activity.
- Try to get an understanding of how a child feels about the disaster. Once you have some idea about their particular fears, you can structure play with them so it’s an outlet for their fear or anger, while remaining constructive and possibly involve problem-solving.
- Be sure to do things together when you can. Being silly, laughing, and having fun is a stress-reliever for everyone involved.
Most importantly, take care of yourself both physically and emotionally through this difficult time. See Trying to Understand and Cope With Disasters for tips.
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.
Mental Health America. (n.d.). Helping Children Cope with Tragedy Related Anxiety.
Zero to Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families. (2014). Coping After a Natural Disaster.
Helping Children Cope — Family communication and coping skills have a great impact on how your family deals with tough times. Part of the Getting Through Tough Times series.Helping Children Manage Stress — Iowa State University Extension — Tips to help children learn ways to handle new or frustrating situations and manage stress. Part of the Stress: Taking Charge series.