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Helping Children Cope with Disaster

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Children can feel very frightened during a disaster and afterwards some will show temporary changes in behavior.

For most children these changes will be mild, not last long, and diminish with time. Young 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.

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

Children’s reactions to disaster:

Here are some common reactions that children may exhibit following a disaster. Babies and young children: May be more irritable, cry more than usual, or want to be held and cuddled more. Preschool and kindergardeners can feel helpless, powerless, and frightened about being separated by their caregivers.

Children ages 7 through 10 can understand the permanence of loss. They may be preoccupied with the details of the traumatic event and want to talk about it continually. This can interfere with their concentration at school.

Children ages 11 through 18 years react more like adults as they mature. They may see the world as unsafe and dangerous, and engage in risk-taking behaviors such as reckless driving and alcohol and drug use. They may become fearful of leaving home, and teenagers can feel overwhelmed by their intense emotions, yet be unable to talk about them.

What parents and caregivers can do:

  • Encourage your children to talk about the disaster
  • Model effective coping skills
  • Calmly provide factual information
  • Involve your children in putting together a family disaster plan and disaster kit
  • Give them specific tasks to let them know they can help restore family and community life
  • Re-establish daily family routines
  • Limit their exposure to the media
  • Use available support networks
If a child continues to be very upset by what happened or if reactions interfere with their school work or relationships, it may be appropriate to talk with the child’s primary care physician or mental health provider who specializes in children’s needs.