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Helping Children Cope with Disasters and Traumatic Events

Disasters like tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, fires, or violent acts can be very scary for children. Children may relate what they see on the news to themselves and their lives.  How children understand the event depends on their stage of development.  flooded neighborhood

Young children often mix up real and pretend.  They might not know quite what happened in the disaster, but they will know that people around them are upset or sad.  When preschool children see the news on TV, they may not know that the news often shows the same event again and again.  They may think the scary event keeps taking place.

When disaster or trauma directly affects children this age, they will need help adjusting to loss, change, and fears.  Young children rely on parents, family and teachers to help them through tough times.  They may regress and start to suck their thumb again, or wet the bed.  Problems with eating, sleeping, and complaints of pain are also common.  They may be scared of monsters, strangers or the dark.  They may also act out or pull into themselves. Sometimes they want to talk about the event a lot and even add parts that did not really happen. 

School age
School-age children can understand more about the disaster than preschool children can.  They may want to hear about what happened from trusted adults and receive comfort.  Children this age can feel personally affected by news stories. 

When the disaster affects them directly, they may have many of the same responses as preschool children.  They may also pull into themselves, refuse to go to school, do poorly in school, act out, or have trouble paying attention. 

Teens aged 12-17 will understand the event much better than younger kids.  They may want to share their feelings and thoughts about issues raised by the disaster.  

When the disaster affects teens directly, they may react to the stress with aches and pains, pulling into themselves, acting out at school or home, seeking attention, or taking up risky behavior like using drugs or alcohol.  Teens are concerned about what their friends think, and may act less engaged in the family.  But they still count on their family’s love and support being there when they need it.  Older teens may want to take action and get involved in helping. 

How to Help Your Child

Risk Factors
Some kids are at higher risk for problems in coping with disaster.  Children at risk may:

To help these kids, reassure them.  Explain what your family and local and government officials are doing to make sure they are safe.  Watch for signs that they are not coping well.

Warning Signs
Children react in different ways to disasters.  Some react right away and others react weeks or months later.  How they react depends on their age, risk factors and personality or temperament.  Watch for warning signs like these:

If you are concerned about your child, ask their health care provider for advice and referral to someone who can help.  Sometimes counseling for the whole family is a good idea.  Parents need to know that they, too, can suffer from trauma after a disaster.




Koplewicz HS, Cloitre M, McClough J, Gurian A, Kamboukos D, Levine E, Pearlman M, Wasser R. Caring for Kids After Trauma, Disaster and Death: A guide for parents and professionals, 2nd ed.  New York University Child Study Center.  Available from:


~ Kyla Boyse, RN and David E. Sandberg, PhD
March 2011


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