help kids cope
Someday your child may need you to help them cope with a disaster. Now is the time to learn how to support them. Now - when your head is clear and you're not stressed.
What to Look for
Children respond differently than adults.
Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if or how severely the child has been affected by a disaster. Some may not exhibit signs of distress for weeks to months after a disaster, while some may never show such signs. It’s important for caregivers to closely observe children’s behavior and provide them with support as soon as possible.
After a disaster, it’s common for children to be afraid that:
- The event will happen again.
- Someone they care about will be injured or killed.
- They will be separated from their family.
- They will be left alone.
After a disaster, you may see changes in children that are evidence of their struggle to cope.
- They may go through personality changes. For example, a quiet, obedient, and caring child may become loud, noisy. An aggressive or an outgoing child may become shy and afraid.
- They may be upset over the loss of a favorite toy, blanket, teddy bear or other items.
- They may have nightmares or be afraid to sleep alone or with the light off.
- They may become increasingly clingy, and cry and whine more than usual.
- They may revert to younger behavior, such as bed wetting and thumb sucking.
How to Help
Helping Kids Cope after a Disaster
- Stay calm. Provide reassurance through your words and actions.
- Reassure them. Tell them they are safe, they won’t be abandoned, and you are there to protect them.
- Talk with them about their concerns and fears. Allow them time to figure out how they feel about what they’ve gone through. Be careful not to express judgement about their feelings. Remind them that it’s okay to be afraid. They don’t need to be brave or tough. It’s okay to cry.
- Stick to routines. Meals, activities, naps, etc. should be as "regular" as possible.
- Minimize media exposure. News coverage (or social media) about the disaster can increase their anxiety.
- Give simple but truthful answers. When they ask questions, make sure they understand your answers. Don't give more information than they can use and understand.
- Let them express their feelings through art and music. Encourage them to draw, paint, sing, play instruments, or tell stories. Encourage them to end every story with, “And now we’re all safe and sound.”
- Use physical touch. Be supportive of their need to be close. Give lots of hugs, smiles, and kind words.
- Bend the rules. Allow them to have nighttime comfort items, such as stuffed animals and nightlights.
- Address feelings of responsibility. Make sure they know they’re not responsible for what happened before, during, or after the event.
- Include them in recovery efforts. Give them tasks that they can safely accomplish to empower them and help them see that everything is going to be alright.
- Give them control. While many things will be out of their control, point out those things they are still in control of. Allow them control over simple things such as what to wear, what to eat, and what bed to sleep in.
If possible, take a few moments away from the children. Make sure you address your own fears and anxieties by talking with other adults. Know that your knowledge of the child and your instincts about their needs will help you make the right decisions. When in doubt, seek professional help for yourself and your child. In the Portland Metro Region, use 211info.org to find local providers.
American Association of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
Your Medical Source
National Institute of Mental Health
US Dept of Health and Human Services
Federal Emergency Management Agency
- How Families Can Cope with Relocation Stress After a Disaster
- Talking to Children about Disasters | Cómo hablarles a los niños sobre los desastres
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
- Tips for Talking with & Helping Children & Youth Cope after a Disaster or Traumatic Event
- Disaster Distress Helpline
National Child Traumatic Stress Network
- Resources for Child Traumatic Stress | Información En Español
- Earthquake-Related Resources
- Trinka and Sam Stories (Earthquakes & Fires, available in multiple languages)
Center for Disease Control