It's Important to Talk with Children About Natural Disasters
Kathleen A. Olson, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency
Revised July 2015 by Ellie M. McCann, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency.
When a natural disaster occurs in the community, it will affect every member of that community or household in a variety of ways. It is important for parents to take a moment from the immediate needs that must be met and talk with their children.
How Children React
Regardless of age, children are vulnerable during these events and need the help and support of their parents. Parents often wait until it is convenient for them to talk to their kids about difficult topics, but it is actually best to talk to children when their anxiety demands a response. Time spent giving your children a reassuring word or a hug will go a long way toward creating a sense of security.
When children are stressed, they often express their feelings through actions and physical symptoms rather than words. These may include stomach aches, nightmares, "clinging" to parents, sleep or appetite changes, and regressive behavior such as thumb-sucking and bed-wetting.
In older children, you may notice risk-taking behaviors, withdrawal, difficulty in concentrating and paying attention, poor performance in school, feeling very tired, or headaches or stomach aches.
What You Can Do
If your child acts differently or behaves in unacceptable ways, try to comfort and reassure her or him. Make the assumption that the behavior is in response to stress. Be aware of the extra attention and affection your child may need during this time. In talking with children of all ages, here are a few tips for communicating with them:
- Get the child’s attention before you start. Children, especially those who are younger, can only concentrate on one thing at a time. Touching them on the shoulder or their hand can get their attention gently.
- Get on their level. When communicating with anyone of any age, being on the same level as they are will help to increase understanding. Eye contact is another tool that is helpful and lets the other person know you are engaged.
- Talk “with” children. When you talk with a child, communicate just as you would with another adult. Talking with a child instead of at her sends the message that you are also listening to them.
- Plan consistent times. Plan time together to talk about how your child is feeling and his concerns. Be open and talk about it on his level. Don’t worry about having all the answers; you may be able to find them together.
It’s important for parents to focus on a variety of factors that can maximize their child’s coping skills. Here are two ideas to try with your child.
- Reassure your child. Your reassurance can build her belief in her own capabilities to cope. Let your child know that things such as nightmares, feeling angry, and crying are normal. It’s also important to rebuild the child’s routine as soon as possible. The structure of routine can increase their ability to manage what has happened.
- Find coping mechanisms. Every child is unique and so is how he or she copes. Find what works best for the children in your care in ways that bring meaning to an event. For older youth, this may be looking at what is hopeful and spiritual meaning. For younger children, it may be a book or a game that helps them talk about the event. Here are some to get you started:
- Worry Fish Activity — The Grief Center — This activity allows the child to see a visual representation of how the act of saying a worry out loud will lessen its influence.
- David and the Worry Beast: Helping Children Cope with Anxiety — Anne Marie Guanci, Caroline Attia — Conquering fears, not avoiding them, is the lesson imparted in this story.
- Bounce Back! Resiliency Strategies Through Children's Literature — Mary Humphrey — Featuring in depth lesson plans using picture books and intermediate novels for each of the five coping skills: Work on a Talent, Look Within, Find a Champion, Rescue Yourself, and Help Others, this book is immediately usable in the elementary classroom or school library.
Finally, take care of yourself both physically and emotionally through this difficult time. See Trying to Understand and Cope With Disasters for tips.
Baggerly, J. & Exum, H. A. (2008). Counseling children after natural disasters: Guidance for family therapists. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 36(1), 79-93.
Harrelson, P. O. N. (2009). Communicating with Young Children. Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Masten, A. S., & Narayan, A. J. (2012). Child development in the context of disaster, war, and terrorism: Pathways of risk and resilience. Annual Review of Psychology, 63, 227-57.
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.