Helping Children Cope with Disasters and Traumatic Events
Disasters like tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, fires, or violent acts can be very scary for children. Children may relate what they see on the news to themselves and their lives. How children understand the event depends on their stage of development.
Young children often mix up real and pretend. They might not know quite what happened in the disaster, but they will know that people around them are upset or sad. When preschool children see the news on TV, they may not know that the news often shows the same event again and again. They may think the scary event keeps taking place.
When disaster or trauma directly affects children this age, they will need help adjusting to loss, change, and fears. Young children rely on parents, family and teachers to help them through tough times. They may regress and start to suck their thumb again, or wet the bed. Problems with eating, sleeping, and complaints of pain are also common. They may be scared of monsters, strangers or the dark. They may also act out or pull into themselves. Sometimes they want to talk about the event a lot and even add parts that did not really happen.
School-age children can understand more about the disaster than preschool children can. They may want to hear about what happened from trusted adults and receive comfort. Children this age can feel personally affected by news stories.
When the disaster affects them directly, they may have many of the same responses as preschool children. They may also pull into themselves, refuse to go to school, do poorly in school, act out, or have trouble paying attention.
When the disaster affects teens directly, they may react to the stress with aches and pains, pulling into themselves, acting out at school or home, seeking attention, or taking up risky behavior like using drugs or alcohol. Teens are concerned about what their friends think, and may act less engaged in the family. But they still count on their family’s love and support being there when they need it. Older teens may want to take action and get involved in helping.
How to Help Your Child
- Children’s questions
- Answer questions at a level the child can understand.
- Answer questions honestly, but don’t dwell on details.
- Do not be afraid to admit that you cannot answer all of their questions.
- Don’t give more information than your child asks for.
- Don’t force discussion on children; instead, follow their lead.
- Be available. Provide ongoing chances for children to talk. They probably will have more questions as time goes on.
- Dealing with feelings
- Teach kids that all emotions are okay. A range of feelings is normal. Feelings can be very strong.
- Help your children voice their feelings, and pay attention to what they say.
- Allow children to discuss other fears and concerns about unrelated issues. This is a good chance to explore these issues also.
- Give lots of physical reassurance like hugs and cuddles.
- Keep your family routine.
- Be careful not to focus on blame for the disaster.
- Explain that the chance of a disaster happening to your child is very small.
- Handling TV news
- Watch the news with your children. That gives a chance to see your kids’ reaction and make sure they understand well.
- Provide children with chances to talk about what they see on TV and to ask questions.
- Don’t let kids watch the news footage over and over. It can make them more stressed and fearful, or dull their feelings about the event.
- Don’t assume that just because you don’t have the news on at home your child has not heard about or seen the news elsewhere. Make sure they are not keeping fearful feelings to themselves.
- Take care of yourself
- Be aware of your own feelings.
- If you are having trouble coping, find support.
- Find the positive and take action
- Help children find the good things within the tragedy. For example, when people help each other, take heroic action, and donate medicine and food to survivors.
- Show your children how the world organizes to work together. For example, through the International Red Cross or the United Nations Relief Fund.
- Teach children about the science used to predict, stop and deal with natural disasters.
- Make a family emergency plan, so your kids know your family is ready, and they know what to do.
- Help your child find ways to show their care for survivors of disaster, especially other children.
- Have reacted strongly in the past to disasters.
- Live in or have relatives in places that have had natural disasters.
- Have had stressful events in their family, like divorce, serious illness, or death of a family member or friend.
- Have an emotional or learning problem.
To help these kids, reassure them. Explain what your family and local and government officials are doing to make sure they are safe. Watch for signs that they are not coping well.
Children react in different ways to disasters. Some react right away and others react weeks or months later. How they react depends on their age, risk factors and personality or temperament. Watch for warning signs like these:
- Staying very close to parents at all times (“clinging”)
- Fear of being apart from parents
- Fears that do not go away
- Sleep problems like nightmares and bedwetting
- Refusal to go to school
- Acting out at home or school
- Being irritable or jumpy
- Trouble paying attention or concentrating
- Headaches, stomachaches or other physical problems
- Pulling into themselves, not doing normal activities
- Feeling very sad or low energy
- Thinking about the disaster all the time
If you are concerned about your child, ask their health care provider for advice and referral to someone who can help. Sometimes counseling for the whole family is a good idea. Parents need to know that they, too, can suffer from trauma after a disaster.
- What Parents Can Do: For Parents of Children Exposed to Violence or Disaster a booklet from the National Institute of Mental Health.
- Child Welfare League of America resource list for talking with children about disasters and violence.
- Helping your child build inner strength (resilience)
- Organizations and Hotlines
National Mental Health Information Center
Toll-Free: 1-800-789-2647 (English and Español)
Web Site: www.mentalhealth.samhsa.gov
National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information
Toll-Free: 1-800-729-6686 (English and Español)
Web Site: www.ncadi.samhsa.gov
Mental Health Services Locator
Toll-Free: 1-800-789-2647 (English and Español)
Web Site: www.mentalhealth.samhsa.gov/databases
Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator
(Find a drug or alcohol abuse treatment program)
Toll-Free: 1-800-662-HELP (4357) (24/7 English and Español)
Web Site: www.findtreatment.samhsa.gov
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Toll-Free: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
TTY: 1-800-799-4TTY (4889)
Web Site: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Office for Victims of Crime
Web Site: www.ojp.usdoj.gov/ovc/ovcres/welcome.html
National Child Traumatic Stress Network
Web Site: www.nctsn.org
National Association of School Psychologists
Phone: (301) 657-0270
Web Site: www.nasponline.org/NEAT
National Center for Children Exposed to Violence
Phone: (203) 785-7047
Toll-Free: 1-877-49-NCCEV (496-2238)
Fax: (203) 785-4608
Web Site: www.nccev.org/violence/children_terrorism.htm
Koplewicz HS, Cloitre M, McClough J, Gurian A, Kamboukos D, Levine E, Pearlman M, Wasser R. Caring for Kids After Trauma, Disaster and Death: A guide for parents and professionals, 2nd ed. New York University Child Study Center. Available from: http://www.aboutourkids.org/files/articles/crisis_guide02.pdf.
~ Kyla Boyse, RN and David E. Sandberg, PhD