After a Natural Disaster: Talking with Children
Ronald L. Pitzer, Family Sociologist, and Sharon M. Danes, Extension Specialist and Professor — Family Social Science
Reviewed May 2015 by Ellie M. McCann, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency.
When there is a serious family problem, parents often wonder whether they should talk to their children or shield them from what is happening. The fact is, children pick up on all kinds of messages. And they take most things literally. Children take your comments seriously — even offhand ones. That's why it is best to sit down and talk with your children. If you don't, kids come to their own conclusions about how bad things are, and usually their picture of the situation is much worse than reality.
Children depend on their parents for emotional security. When parents are tense, upset, and inattentive, much of this security is gone. For tips for helping children cope in tough times, review Helping Children Cope. This piece includes ways to help yourselves as parents and more specifically ways to help your children cope with the stresses of the disaster.
Take Time to Talk to Your Kids
You are under a lot of stress. You may think taking time for your kids is the least of your worries, but your children need you. Parents often wait until it is convenient for them to talk to their kids, but it's actually best to talk to children when their own anxiety demands a response. A moment spent here and there giving your children a reassuring word or a hug will go a long way toward creating a sense of security.
Think of the last time your child wanted to talk and you didn't take the time to listen. What would you have done differently to make time for them? What can you do differently in the future?
Accept Their Feelings
Accept your children's feelings and concerns. This usually requires you to really listen to your child. For example, when a child tells you, "I hate my teacher," the problem may not be the teacher but rather that your child still feels sad about things lost in the disaster, including the pens needed to do homework. Take the time to ask your child questions that discover the real cause of your child’s frustration.
By asking questions and listening, you give your child permission to tell you what is really wrong. When a child says: "I hate my brother," parents often say, "Oh, no you don't." Compare this response to how you talk to a spouse or a friend. If they said: "I hate my boss," you wouldn't respond by saying: "No, you don't." You would probably say: "Really? Why?" Parents can do that for children, too.
Think of the last time your child came to you and stated a feeling that was hard to accept, like "I hate my teacher" or "I hate my brother." What did you say? What might you say differently now?
Think of the last time you stated a strong feeling like "I hate my brother" or "My spouse is a jerk; I'm leaving him/her" to a good friend. What were you really trying to communicate? How did that person respond to you that helped you say what you really wanted to communicate? Or, how did they respond to you that didn't help you say what you really wanted to communicate? How would you have wanted someone to respond? What can you learn from that incident that could help you accept your children's feelings?
When children are stressed, they may hit their siblings, kick the dog, or do other aggressive things. While you need to make it clear these are not acceptable behaviors in any circumstances, you can still accept the feelings and give your children permission to cry, yell, or get out their sadness or anger another way. You don't have to "fix" how the child feels. You can, however, help them deal with their feelings by saying, "It's OK to cry; I feel sad too," or "I'm angry too. Let's go outside and run until we're not mad anymore."
Think of a time when you were young and an adult didn't accept your feelings. Share with your spouse or children what happened, how you felt, and what you wish had happened.
Be honest in a way that helps children understand the situation, without being unrealistically optimistic or pessimistic. This will help you build a strong, trusting relationship with your children. Speak to your children simply; give them just enough information to answer their questions. Being honest sometimes means admitting that you don't know the answers to everything. When you tell your child what you don't know, also tell them what you do know to reassure them.
Think of the questions you are most afraid your children will ask you. Talk to your spouse or another adult and brainstorm appropriate responses for when your children ask these questions.
Let Children Help
All children can do something to help. When they do their part, they feel they are part of the solution, not the problem. When they do help, let them know you appreciate it. In addition, let your children participate in everyday decision making whenever possible. This gives them the tools for handling problems now and later in life.
Think of three problems your family faces. Write them down. Choose one to discuss. Let everyone in the family suggest ways to solve the problem. Choose a solution in which everyone can play a part (which may be a combination of ideas).
Children who have experienced a natural disaster worry about the future. They wonder if there will be enough money for food and clothes and whether their family will have to move. When your children ask questions about the future, try to respond in a way that is truthful and makes them feel secure.
When children are stressed, they often express their feelings through actions rather than words. Often these actions are regressive or inappropriate. For example, young children may start wetting the bed. School age children might start fights on the playground. Teens may become very demanding and resentful. Some children will act inappropriately only with their peers or at school, but seem to be OK at home.
These are all normal childhood responses to stress. If your child acts differently or behaves in unacceptable ways, try to comfort and reassure him/her. Make the assumption that the behavior is in response to stress. Be aware of the extra attention and affection he/she may need during this time.
Here are some typical stress-related behaviors.
Young children may engage in and/or experience:
- Clinging and crying
- Stomach aches
Older children may engage in and/or experience:
- Fighting and other aggressive behavior
- Withdrawal from peers and family
- Difficulty in concentrating and paying attention
- Poor performance in school
- Behavior that is the opposite of the usual: careful children become reckless, pleasant children become abrasive, social children withdraw, etc.
- Drastic weight change
- Extreme obedience and compliance
Think of a recent behavior that is unusual for your child. Consider whether it could be stress-related. What is the child upset about? What could you say to your child to reassure him? Ask your child how he is feeling. Listen.
Young children often don't articulate their feelings well. Pictures can help them explain their feelings. Ask your child to draw a picture of herself. Then ask, "Is she happy? Sad? Why is she sad or happy?"
Think about how your children usually exhibit stress (by fighting, by withdrawing, etc.)? What activities would lessen their stress? Biking? Cleaning? Being read to? Watching a favorite TV show? Can you guide them to those activities next time?
Family rituals provide a feeling of stability for children. Try to maintain as many family rituals as you can. These are not extravagant rituals; they are simply the things you make a point to do with each other. For the whole family, they may include family dinners or going to church. For younger children, they may include story time or favorite toys at bedtime. For older children, they may include watching a favorite TV show or spending an hour each night on the phone with friends. If these activities help your children feel better, encourage your children to take part in them.
What rituals do you have in your family? Make a list. What new ones could you initiate that might help your family? Ask your children to suggest activities they would enjoy.
Helping Your Teenagers
Stress and depression in teenagers
Stress and depression are serious problems for many teenagers. Young people going through upheaval may suffer mild to severe depression. Stress is characterized by feelings of tension, frustration, worry, sadness, and withdrawal that last from a few hours to a few days. Depression is both more severe and longer lasting. Depression is characterized by more extreme feelings of helplessness, sadness, isolation, worry, withdrawal, and worthlessness that last for two weeks or longer.
Not talking can be dangerous to your teen’s health
Few teenagers will turn first to adults for help when they experience stress or problems because adults tend to discount or underestimate the significance of young peoples' problems. All too often, children and teens' efforts to communicate intense feelings are minimized, denied, rationalized, or ignored by adults. Most parents simply don't remember how difficult adolescence is.
When dealing with young people, remember their problems are as big and important and as stressful to them as yours are to you. That's why they need your help in the early stages of distress, to prevent them from sinking into despair or depression. Teens may not initiate contact with an adult until they are very distressed, if at all. Reach out to teens by asking, in private, what is wrong. Say in a friendly, low-key manner, "You haven't seemed yourself lately" or "You seem kind of down" or "Is something bothering you?"
Don't downplay the teen's distress. Saying "Don't worry" or "Cheer up" is not helpful. Also, try not to give advice. Instead, let them know you are there to help them find solutions. Encourage teens to talk about their feelings. Then listen.
Here is a list of questions you can discuss with your children. It might help to go around the room and let each family member respond. Or, you can discuss these issues privately with one child. Ask your child:
- What have you lost or what are you afraid of?
- What are you afraid of?
- Do you feel helpless?
- Do you sit and think about everything turning out badly?
- What can you control and make decisions about while you deal with the stress we are experiencing?
- How can I help?
Your willingness to talk and to listen means a lot to your teenager. Don't be surprised if he/she rebuffs you at first. Be patient. Also remember, kids need physical affection. A hug or an arm around a shoulder can reassure a troubled child and let him know you really care.
Children Take Cues From Parents' Behavior
Children react more strongly to adults' reaction to a crisis than they do to the crisis itself. If adults can avoid needless alarm and panic, children will respond more calmly, too.
In moments of crisis, children turn to their parents for cues not only as to how they should behave but also as to how they should feel. If the parents "go to pieces" in front of their children, they become confused and alarmed. To reassure your children:
- When you talk, get on their level and make eye contact.
- Set a good example; don't lose control in front of your children.
- Get their attention before speaking; they can only concentrate on one thing at a time.
- Show affection; hug your children.
- Talk with, not at your children; ask them how they are and what they fear.
- Let them know you want to listen when they want to talk in the future.
Look at the list above. Think about how you can do those things more often. Make a list of other things you have done and/or can do to reassure your children.
Helping Stressed Children Relax
To teach children who are feeling stressed to relax, you need to first teach them how to identify feelings of stress in their bodies. Tell them that if their hearts are pounding a lot, or their faces are hot, or they feel butterflies in their stomachs, they are probably feeling stressed. Let them know that stress is normal and help them relax by doing a quiet activity with them such as:
- Drawing pictures.
- Reciting nursery rhymes together.
- Practicing being a marionette. Have the marionette start out very limp and then gradually straighten up and stand. Have the marionette march like a soldier and then gradually relax down and become limp again.
- Doing deep breathing exercises, perhaps while listening to music.
When was the last time you could tell your child felt stressed? Which of the activities above would have been helpful to relax your child? Which would you choose the next time?
When they feel stressed, some children need more physical activity. Encourage them to ride a bike or run. Go with them.
Find activities that children can use to relieve tension and express themselves. Young children often express strong feelings through tearing and cutting paper, hammering nails, or pounding on clay.
Children will sometimes let puppets, dolls, or stuffed toys express the feelings or fears they don't want to say. Parents can use this technique to draw out a child's fears. You can make a puppet out of socks or use your child's doll or stuffed toy. Take a puppet or toy yourself and give one to your child or children. Let each puppet talk about what is making him sad or upset. Using the puppets, help the children find solutions.
While most of the activities listed here are age related, it's important to think of how individual differences between children can play an important role in how children will respond. While you try out these activities with your child, remember to base each on a variety of factors that includes their level of intelligence, the ability to self-regulate, personality differences, the abilities of the parents (or caregivers), and what brings meaning to an event for older youth, such as hope and spirituality.
This project was originally funded by FEMA through the Minnesota Department of Human Services — Mental Health Division, in cooperation with CLIMB (Creative Learning Ideas for Mind and Body) and the University of Minnesota Extension.
Faber, A. & Mazlish, E. (2012). How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk. Simon and Schuster.
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, 227-257.
Extreme Weather — Extension resources for floods, wind damage, winter impacts, and more.
After a Natural Disaster: Managing Anger — Change how you see things, say how you feel, and calm down.
Change: Loss, Opportunity, and Resilience — When change is loss, people grieve.