Helping Young Children Cope after a Natural Disaster

Although every child's reaction to stress will be unique, there are some common ways that children respond to natural disasters and the disruptions they can bring to everyday life. The information in this article is meant to help you understand and ease your child's fears.

Understanding your child's fears

Children who have been involved in a natural disaster are afraid of many of the same things that adults are afraid of: that the event will happen again, that they or their family will be hurt, or that they will be separated from family members. They may also have fears based on misconceptions of what has happened.

The importance of security and routine

Children take tremendous comfort in the routines of ordinary family life - in knowing where their belongings are, when and where they will eat their meals, and what will happen at bedtime. Young children who are displaced because of a natural disaster or whose families are experiencing the inconveniences of power and water shortages can find the disruption to their daily routines very difficult. Although you may temporarily not be in a position to resume your ordinary family life you can do the following to help your child maintain a sense of security:

  • Reassure your child that you are there to protect him.
  • Provide extra physical reassurance. Hugging, sitting close while reading a book, and staying longer at bedtime can help restore a child's sense of safety.
  • If you can, give your child a comforting toy or something of yours to keep - a scarf, a photograph, or a note from you. Your child may be afraid of separating from you, and keeping a reminder of you close by can be very helpful.
  • Be available as much as you can for talking with and comforting your child. Being patient, loving, and understanding is extremely helpful after a trauma.
  • If your child's daily routine has been disturbed let him or her know that this is only temporary. You will probably need to repeat this many times, as your child may need constant reassurance.

Helping your child

Open, thoughtful communication with your children will help comfort and reassure them. The following guidelines can help:

  • Ask your child what he or she thinks has happened. If there are any misconceptions, this is a chance for you to help. Listen closely and talk about your child's fears.
  • Help your child talk about the event by letting him or her know that it is normal to feel worried or upset. Help younger children use words like "angry" and "sad" to express their feelings and let them know these are typical reactions.
  • Try to be patient when your child asks the same question many times. Children often use repetition as a source of comfort.
  • Share your child's concerns and how you've responded with other family members. A consistent message from everyone involved can help stabilize your child more quickly.
  • If your child seems reluctant to talk, ask him or her to draw pictures of what happened, and talk about the pictures.
  • Encourage your child to act out his or her feelings with toys or puppets. Don't be alarmed if your child expresses angry or violent emotions. Instead, use the play-acting to begin a conversation about his or her worries or fears.
  • Talk with your child about your own feelings, but try to find other adults to talk with about your anxieties and frustrations. Children pick up on their parents' emotions and will tend to feel more frightened and helpless if that's how their parents appear.
  • Shield your child from graphic details and pictures in the media. They will only cause anxiety and overload your child with information that isn't age-appropriate.
  • Don't make assurances or promises you may not be able to keep, such as "everything will be fine" or "this will never happen again."

Common reactions

Following are some common reactions associated with traumatic events and ways to help your child deal with them:

  • Many children may try to return to an earlier stage when they felt safer and more cared for. Younger children may wet the bed or want a bottle; older children may fear being alone. It's important to be patient and comforting if your child responds this way.
  • Children younger than seven or eight years of age tend to think that if something goes wrong, it must be their fault - no matter how irrational this may sound to an adult. Be sure your child understands that he or she did not cause this event and can't cause a similar event.
  • Some children have difficulty falling asleep, and others wake frequently or have troubling dreams. If you can, give your child a stuffed animal, soft blanket, or flashlight to take to bed. Be patient. It may take a while before your child can sleep through the night again.
  • Powerlessness is painful for adults and children. Writing thank-you letters to people who have helped. Working to rebuild a community and caring for others can bring a sense of hope and control to everyone in the family.

If fears continue

Sometimes children's fears last long after the event, interfering with their enjoyment of everyday life. Warning signs of this include the following:

  • troubled sleep or frequent nightmares
  • bedwetting
  • fear of darkness, imaginary monsters, or bad people
  • fear of going to school, going outside, or being left alone
  • thumb-sucking
  • unusual quietness, unresponsiveness, or tiredness
  • unusual agitation or aggression
  • excessive clinging or only wanting to be around people
  • excessive isolation or only wanting to be alone
  • fear of the same thing happening again
  • wanting or eating a lot of sugary foods

If your child has persistent problems with any of the above symptoms, it's important to consult your doctor for a referral to an objective mental health professional for expert help. You can also contact your installation's Family Support Center or Military OneSource for information and help getting in touch with a counselor.


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