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Coping with Stress

After a Natural Disaster: Parenting 0-5 Year Olds

Ellie M. McCann, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency

Reviewed May 2013 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.

Children up to five years of age 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. 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behavior changes to watch for are increases in misbehavior and/or hyperactivity, speech difficulties, and aggressive or withdrawn behavior.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 through 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.

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. 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. Most importantly, take care of yourself both physically and emotionally through this difficult time.

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.

Children and a Natural Disaster: From Fear to Hope — Limit exposure to disaster news, provide structure and help others.

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


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