Helping Young Children When Natural Disasters Strike

Written by Laurie Lafortune

When a terrible event such as a tornado, wildfire, flood, or other natural disaster happens, it’s extremely traumatic for everyone affected. For children, such events can be especially difficult to cope with. Even after the event is over, and they are physically safe, children may have difficulties, (although each child is different and there is no one typical way of responding). Children may be more irritable, less cooperative, have tantrums, or regress from milestones such as being potty trained or sleeping alone.  There might be bed wetting, They might become very demanding and seem angry all the time. They might cling to you and be unable to let you out of their sight. Frequent crying, unable to sleep, and general loss of interest in activities or play can also occur.

What can parents do to help children through these times?

Although it is difficult, parents need to keep things together themselves. One dad was asked how he could be smiling and playing with his kids after being evacuated from their home, not knowing if it was still standing, and his response was that he could act ‘normal’, because it was for his kids. That wise dad knew that his children needed to see their dad interacting, talking, laughing and smiling as he always had. His kids needed the comfort of that consistent adult, sending a message that everything was going to be okay.

It might be acting, or putting on a front, but parents need to appear calm, confident, and in charge. Save your times of adult conversation and worries for when your children are not around. Keep adult concerns for adult conversation. For example, a young child cannot handle the stress of and anxiety of money concerns around food, shelter, clothing, and your job. It’s hard enough to deal with that as an adult.

Protect kids from too much live news, updates, and dramatic video.  Seeing scenes of the event over and over increases stress as the child relives the experiences. Although they want to know what’s going on, you need to filter the information so it does not re-traumatize them.  Follow their lead about what they want to talk about, by asking what they have been hearing, and give them answers to their questions, but in a simple way. Don’t volunteer more information than they ask about; remember they are children and you need to keep things appropriate to their level of development and understanding. You don’t want them to imagine things to be worse than they really are. You can expect to have these conversations frequently with some children, as they try to come to terms with the situation, they may talk often about it and ask the same questions over and over.

To help everyone cope, be sure to eat regular, nutritious family meals, be physically active, and try to get enough sleep. Set some sort of daily routine, even if you are no longer going to work or are living away from your home.

Children can act out their feelings about the events through play.  They may want to write a letter or a story, or younger children can dictate a story to you. Drawing pictures can be a good way for children to express their feelings. Find times to have fun and play with your kids, and encourage time with friends.  Children may be feeling helpless and powerless. Involve them in ways that they can help with the situation.

A story from Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, may help everyone with their feelings of distress and fear: “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”  -Fred Rogers.