Helping Children Cope with Disaster

Helping Children Cope with Disaster

How parents and caregivers react to and cope with a disaster or emergency situation can affect the way their children react.



Children can feel very frightened during a disaster and afterwards some children will show temporary changes of behavior. For most children these changes will be mild, not last long, and diminish with time. However, reminders of what happened could cause upsetting feelings to return and behavior changes to emerge again. Watching scenes of the disaster on television can be distressing for children, especially for younger children. Younger children may return to bed-wetting, have difficulty sleeping, and not want to be separated from their caregivers. Older children may show more anger than usual, find concentrating at school harder, and want to spend more time alone than usual. Some children are more vulnerable, and their reactions can be more severe and last for a longer period of time. Factors that contribute to greater vulnerability include:

  1. Direct exposure to the disaster. This includes being evacuated, seeing injured or dying people, being injured themselves, and feeling that their own lives are threatened.
  2. Personal loss. This includes the death or serious injury of a family member, close friend, or family pet.
  3. On-going stress from the secondary effects of disaster. This includes temporarily living elsewhere, losing contact with their friends and neighbors, losing things that are important to them, parental job loss, and the financial costs of reestablishing their previous living conditions.
  4. Prior exposure to disaster or other traumatic event.

How parents and caregivers react to and cope with a disaster or emergency situation can affect the way their children react. When parents and caregivers or other family members are able to deal with the situation calmly and confidently, they are often the best source of support for their children. One way to help children feel more confident and in control is to involve them in preparing a family disaster plan.

What Parents and Caregivers Can Do

It is important for parents and other caregivers to understand what is causing a child’s anxieties and fears. Following a disaster, children are most afraid that:

– The event will happen again.
– Someone close to them will be killed or injured.
– They will be left alone or separated from their family.

Parents and caregivers can clarify misunderstandings of risk and danger by acknowledging children’s concerns and perceptions. Discussions of preparedness plans can strengthen a child’s sense of safety and security. Listen to what a child is saying. If a young child asks questions about the event, answer them simply without the elaboration needed for an older child or adult. Children vary in the amount of information they need and can use. If a child has difficulty expressing his or her thoughts and feelings, then allowing them to draw a picture or tell a story of what happened may help.

Parents and Caregivers Can Take the Following Actions:

– Encourage your children to talk and listen to their concerns.
– Calmly provide factual information about the disaster and plans for insuring their ongoing safety.
– Involve your children in updating your family disaster plan and disaster supplies kit.
– Practice your plan.
– Involve your children by giving them specific tasks to let them know they can help restore family and community life.
– Spend extra time with your children.
– Re-establish daily routines for work, school, play, meals, and rest.

First seen on

Related Book