Science of Parenting: Talking to Kids about Natural Disasters

AMES, Iowa – The floods, storms and tornadoes of 2011 are taking their toll on the nation’s children, who may be stressed, worried or frightened about what is happening to them and their families. Staff members from Project Recovery Iowa offer tips on talking to kids about natural disasters in this month’s Science of Parenting radio program podcast from Iowa State University Extension.

The podcast is available for free download from the Science of Parenting website or iTunes.

Science of Parenting podcast co-host Douglas Gentile is an ISU Extension specialist and associate professor of psychology. He said, “We know from research that kids of different ages are scared by different things, they worry about different types of things, they have a totally different understanding of what’s happening. So how do we work with kids of different ages?”

Keep Kids Safe

First, adults, parents and other caregivers need to let children know that “we’re here to keep them safe and to provide a safe environment,” said Teresa Zilk with the Iowa Department of Human Services, which implements Project Recovery Iowa, a free and confidential, federally funded crisis counseling program.

Remain calm and try to alleviate the children’s fear, added Abby Lamont, a crisis counselor with Project Recovery Iowa. Listen to them and let them talk on numerous occasions. Let them know they are reacting normally to an abnormal circumstance.

Limit the Details

Both Zilk and Lamont suggested limiting children’s exposure to the details of the disaster. They don’t need to see all the news coverage. However, Zilk said, ask them about what they’ve seen and how they feel about it. Give them a lot of hugs and face time, and let them know the family will get through this difficult time.

“They might keep asking about [the disaster]. You might have to revisit the subject a few times,” Zilk said. And, it’s OK for parents to say they don’t know the answer to their child’s question or how to explain what’s happening.

However, reinforce children’s feeling of safety, Zilk said. “Yes, this terrible thing happened. But we’re still a family. We’re still whole. We’re still able to make it.”

Give Kids Times to Talk

Give older children ample opportunities to talk about their feelings, Lamont said. She also suggested engaging young children in activities that will build their resilience. For example, keep track of every time it rains but doesn’t flood by marking the days on the calendar. After a few months, count the marked days to help kids learn that it can rain a lot but not flood, and they can remember that they got through it.

Children at any age may show signs of trauma, Lamont said. For example, young children may have night terrors or regress to a behavior they had when they were younger, such as clinging to their parents or bedwetting. Such behaviors are normal reactions to the stress of a disaster. However for all children, parents should watch for signs of unusually aggressive behavior, loss of concentration or inability to sleep, which may indicate that the child needs additional help to cope with the crisis.

Project Recovery Iowa serves residents of Hamilton, Story, Polk, Jasper, Warren, Marion and Wapello counties with counseling and referral related to natural disasters. Lamont said, “We’re a listening ear, we’re a peer counselor. We try to reassure them that, ‘yes, everything that you’re feeling is very, very normal.’”

Zilk encouraged other Iowans to call ISU Extension’s Iowa Concern Hotline, 800-447-1985. “Someone is available 24 hours, seven days a week. You will not be able to get a crisis counselor to come to your door, but you will be able to speak to someone over the phone,” she said.

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Science of Parenting podcasts are available for free download from the Science of Parenting website,, or can be subscribed to in iTunes. Each month a new, 30-minute Science of Parenting program, as well as previous programs, will be available, as well as blog posts and other research-based parenting information.