Extension News

Help Children Cope with a Disaster


AMES, Iowa -- Coping with a disaster can be difficult for children and their families, says Lesia Oesterreich, a family life state specialist with Iowa State University Extension.

“Children may be frightened by the disaster itself, or be upset by disruptions that a disaster might cause in their daily routines or their relationships with their parents, teachers and friends,” Oesterreich said.

The ISU Extension specialist noted that changes in a child’s behavior may be signs or symptoms of distress or discomfort following a disaster.

Young children may feel vulnerable, Oesterreich said. “They don’t understand what is happening and have trouble communicating how they feel. Older children also may have a hard time expressing their feelings.”

Oesterreich said following a disaster, some children may be afraid of the disaster recurring, or become anxious when there is rain, storms, sirens or other reminders.

“Children may become upset or cry easily, get angry or act out, become restless or have difficulty paying attention,” she said. “Some children may be quiet and withdrawn, while others can’t stop talking about the experience.”

Such changes in behaviors are common in children who have been through a disaster, and are natural responses to stress. Some of these symptoms may last for weeks or months, but should diminish over time.

Parents can help their children cope, Oesterreich said. She recommends the following actions:

  • Keep children informed, support them emotionally and get them involved in the family’s efforts to prepare for or recover from a disaster. Pulling together through adversity will strengthen the family in ways that will last long after the crisis is resolved.
  • Make time to comfort and reassure your children. Just a moment of your time, a gentle hug or a reassuring word may be all children need to feel more safe and secure in an emotional situation.
  • Speak simply and honestly about the situation. Explain to your children what is happening to your family. Use simple words they can understand. Be honest. Keep children informed of a problem that will directly affect them.
  • Help young children understand the disaster. You can explain how tornados, storms or floods happen, and how these are unusual but natural patterns of weather. Children should know that they were not responsible for causing a disaster and that disasters are not some kind of punishment for something they did.
  • Reassure children about the family safety. Because young children sometimes have difficulty understanding complex situations, they can easily exaggerate their normal fear of being separated from their parents.
  • Maintain routines or rituals of comfort. Dinnertime at the kitchen table or a story or a favorite teddy bear at bedtime may provide young children with a sense of security.
  • Talk with children about how you feel and suggest a positive response. Say something like, “Mommy feels very sad about leaving home. That is why I am crying. Come and give Mommy a hug.” Giving children something to do makes them feel a part of the family response to the adversity.
  • Put words of acceptance to your children's feelings and experiences. Say something similar to “Yes Tommy. It’s OK to cry. Taffy (the family pet) will come back to our house when we return too. For now, Uncle Ned will take good care of her.” Be a good listener and supporter.
  • Give children something productive to do appropriate for their age, and let them know you appreciate their efforts to help the family. Do not overburden them with responsibilities, however. They need time to play and be with friends.
  • Show children models of courage, determination, coping and support. “Daddy was up all night putting sandbags around the house. Our neighbors are doing the same. We are all working together.” Point out ways of coping that you use. “When I feel sad I think of the good times we have had and remind myself that things will be better soon.”
  • Take time to calm yourself. You will be able to provide more support to your family if you do.

Seek professional advice from your physician or mental health agency if you are worried about your child showing symptoms that are severe or lasting too long. You also can call ISU Extension’s Iowa Concern hotline, 1-800-447-1985, or contact your county ISU Extension office.


Contacts :

Lesia Oesterreich, Human Development & Family Studies, (515) 294-0363, loesterr@iastate.edu

Laura Sternweis, Extension Communications and External Relations, (515) 294-0775, lsternwe@iastate.edu