Helping Children Cope With Public Tragedies and Natural Disasters

How Children Experience Tragedy

Whenever a public tragedy or natural disaster occurs, children can become confused or frightened. Parents want to know how to best meet a child’s needs.

Each child’s reaction will vary based on temperament, proximity to the event and the child’s personal history. However, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of how children experience natural disasters and public tragedies, and how parents and caregivers can intervene most effectively.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) explains that after a disaster, children are most afraid that:

  • The event will happen again.
  • Someone will be injured or killed.
  • They will be separated from their family.
  • They will be left alone.

Here are some common ways children respond to a public tragedy or natural disaster. Please note that the severity and intensity of the response depend greatly on how directly the child is affected by the event:

  • Anxiety or panic
  • Fear of being alone
  • Unexplained anger
  • Boisterous play
  • Crying often and easily
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Sleeplessness
  • Loss of appetite or other eating disruptions
  • Increased physical complaints or illnesses
  • Acting younger, perhaps regressing to prior developmental milestones
  • Decline in school performance or refusal/reluctance to go to school

Establish a Sense of Safety

Children take their cues on how to react from the significant adults in their lives. The most important thing adults can do to help children is to establish a sense of safety and security. In addition, adults can help children by allowing them to work through their emotions related to the event. Adults should:

  • Stay calm and in control, and avoid appearing frightened or anxious.
  • Tell children the truth about what is happening. Stick to the facts. Don’t speculate and don’t dwell on the event. Use developmentally appropriate explanations:
    • Pre-school to elementary school: Keep explanations be brief and simple. Provide reassurances about the child’s safety, security and continued routines.
    • Middle school: Describe what is being done to ensure their safety and security. Help them separate reality from fantasy.
    • High school: Be straightforward. Allow teens to share opinions about the event and suggestions on how to prevent future events. Find ways for them to help victims or provide disaster relief, if possible.
  • Remind children that the government, police, doctors and other experts are handling the situation.
  • Reassure children that they are safe. Explain (repeatedly, if necessary) specific ways their safety is being secured.
  • Allow a child to feel upset, but don’t force him or her to express emotions. Be a good, sympathetic listener. Explain that the child’s feelings are normal. Know that these feelings might reappear for some time.
  • Observe the child’s emotional reactions. Look for changes in behavior, sleep and eating patterns. Keep in mind that children frequently expression emotions through their behavior, not their words.
  • Children at greater risk are those with a prior traumatic history, those with a mental illness or those with special needs.
  • Examine your own feelings of stress. Take care of yourself physically, and get the emotional support you need. It is OK to let your children know that you are sad, but that you believe things will get better.

In addition, parents and other significant adults should:

  • Keep the family together as much as possible.
  • Maintain a normal routine but expect that children may have a harder time with homework and chores. You may need to give them extra attention at bedtime.
  • Spend more time with children. Tell them that you love them. Give them plenty of physical contact.
  • Limit TV viewing of the public tragedy or natural disaster.
  • Encourage children to spend time with friends and attend school. The social interaction will help.
  • Let the school counselor know if your child is experiencing stress. The school can provide additional emotional resources.
  • Focus on stories of hope and strength. How were people helped? Did anything good happen?
  • Allow children opportunities to think hopeful thoughts for the victims. They could write letters, poems, draw pictures or pray for the victims.

When to Seek Professional Help

After a public tragedy or natural disaster, reactions will gradually abate if a child receives adequate support from parents, adults and familiar routines.

Seek professional help if any of the physical, emotional or cognitive reactions described above continue for any significant period, become debilitating for the child and/or the family, or have adverse effects on school performance, peer relationships, achieving developmental milestones, etc.

Other factors that merit immediate attention include frequent aggressive emotional outbursts, serious problems at school, preoccupation with the traumatic event or extreme withdrawal.

As warranted, parents should seek help from a school counselor/psychologist, pediatrician, faith practitioner or child/adolescent mental health professional.

Organizations Providing Assistance with Traumatic Stress Response

  • American Red Cross
  • National Organization for Victim's Assistance
  • Crisis Hot Lines
  • Salvation Army
  • Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists,

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