Helping children cope with disasters

When a disaster strikes, you have a lot to worry about. Property damage emergencies can be stressful and chaotic. It can be easy to forget that your kids are suffering too. You are the one who shoulders the burden of responsibility. You feel new stress on top of your everyday stress. It can be a lot to handle.

Meanwhile, your kids are acting up more than usual. They may become fearful or aggressive, misbehave, or begin doing poorly in school (Coping with Disaster, 2015). Don’t they understand this is the worst possible time for this behavior?!

Children and Stress

It is not a coincidence. It is your children’s reaction to the stress of the disaster. Their stress is undoubtedly different than yours, but it is stress just the same.

You need a support system. So do they.

You need to process your feelings. So do they.

You need to know it’s all going to be OK. So do they.

Children of different ages have different concerns and different reactions. Ready.gov has age-specific advice for helping your children cope, whatever their age (US Department of Homeland Security). This site assures us that most children only experience brief reactions to disaster. However, the following factors can increase the risk of longer-lasting stress responses:

  • Direct exposure – being evacuated, being injured, or observing injury
  • Significant loss –losing a friend or a family member, experiencing a change in physical abilities due to injury
  • Ongoing stress – moving/displacement from the home, having a parent unemployed, or the loss of a favorite toy or other “security blanket” item

Feelings Are Important

“A child who feels afraid is afraid.” (American Red Cross)

No feeling that a child has is wrong. It has to be accepted so it can be worked through. A child may feel stressed because she sees how worried you are. Or a child may be afraid because he thinks something else bad might happen. Some children may even feel a sense of excitement because of a new adventure. Whatever feelings they feel, they are all OK.

Some children may easily express their feelings. Others may act them out in unwanted behaviors. They just need you to help them process whatever it is they feel. And there is no shame if you or your children need professional help working through your emotions after a disaster.

Teachable Moments

This is a deeply stressful time for you, but it is also a pivotal time for your children. These are moments a child will remember for a lifetime.

As you show your youngsters continued support and love through this time, they will learn a sense of stability that will help them handle the ups and downs of life for years to come. As you help them work through their emotions, they learn how to express themselves appropriately.

Having your children learn healthy coping methods as a result of a disaster can be the silver lining to the dark cloud you are facing.


Resources

American Red Cross. (n.d.). Children and Young Adults. Retrieved from American Red Cross: http://www.redcross.org/prepare/location/home-family/children

Coping with Disaster. (2015, November 9). Retrieved from FEMA: https://www.fema.gov/coping-disaster

US Department of Homeland Security. (n.d.). Helping Children Cope. Retrieved from Ready.gov: http://www.ready.gov/kids/parents/coping