Comforting Children in a Disaster

Helping children cope with the onset of sudden stress.

During or after disasters, many families suffer from the onset of sudden stress. These times may be particularly difficult for preschoolers, who may not understand all that is going on around them. Here are some suggestions for helping children cope, overcome obstacles, and increase their resilience.

Calm your own fears, then reassure your children

It is important to calm your own fears before talking with your children, as they will react to your level of fear and anxiety. Children need to be reassured that their parents and caretakers have their family life under control. It's important to maintain close contact with your children and provide physical comfort (lots of hugs!), as well as verbal reassurance (tell them that you will keep them safe). Your children may be clingy or in need of more attention than at other times. That's OK. Try to spend time with them and be reassuring about your presence and their safety. Explain that they are safe with you and that good people are in charge. Spend time together in soothing activities such as holding hands, taking a walk, or sharing a cup of hot chocolate.

Listen to your children in every way

Your children may express their feelings through actions rather than words. For example, children may develop a new fear of loud noises, be less interested in playing with other children, or develop stomach aches and headaches. Fear, loss, anger, and sadness are all normal reactions for children living through stressful times. It is important to validate children's feelings and help them develop constructive ways of expressing such emotions. Remember that all children are different and that your goal is to be patient, understanding, reassuring, and accepting.

Try to keep a normal routine

Children feel secure when life is stable and predictable. Stick to your usual schedules and routines as much as you can, allowing some flexibility (for example, it is fine to spend more time tucking your child in at bedtime). This will help children to keep calm and maintain their sense of safety. Allow children to participate in the activities that they have always enjoyed with the people they cherish. Talking to your child's teacher, friends, and neighbors may help you plan such a routine.

Promote positive action

Discuss activities you can do together to feel better. There are many activities that can help children express their emotions and help them to readjust. You can suggest that your children write a story or draw a picture about what happened. Your child can play with clay, engage in a physical activity, read a favorite story, dance to favorite music, and volunteer in the neighborhood. Allowing children choices and letting them decide on activities can help them maintain a sense of control and increase their comfort level.

Connect with others

Ensure that children receive affection and attention, not just from those in their immediate home, but from extended family, friends, and neighbors. This is the time to reach out to others with visits, phone calls, and letters.

For more ideas on helping children cope with stress, visit Sesame Workshop’s You Can Ask.

What to say when your child cries, "I'm scared!"

Child's Age When to Begin Talking What to Say How to Follow Up
Two years and younger Only if your child asks a question. Most likely you won't need to take this step, because toddlers usually do not grasp what is happening in the news. "Mommy and Daddy love you, and we'll keep you safe." If they ask at all, toddlers are more interested in how these events affect their world. Details may just frighten them. Shield your child from the news. For instance, don't watch TV during dinner; wait until your child is asleep to watch the news. If you have a caregiver, make sure he or she observes the same rules. Ask your caregiver to let you know if your child overhears something.
Three to five years old If your preschooler asks questions about what she may have inadvertently seen on TV (via news bulletins that interrupt children's programming, for instance) or heard from older kids at the playground. But don't bring the events to your child's attention unless you know he's aware of it. "It's OK to feel upset, but we need to use words to say we are sad or mad." Preschoolers are just beginning to learn how to handle their emotions. Use this moment as an opportunity to teach them how to express their sadness, confusion, or anger in a healthy way. If you are watching the news, make sure that your preschooler is in another room watching age-appropriate programming. If your child has trouble expressing himself but is clearly upset by what he has seen on TV, invite him to sit and draw with you what he has seen. Then discuss the emotions apparent in the pictures: "Tell me about what you drew."
Six to 11 years old As soon as you can, because older children have probably already seen something on TV or gotten wind of it through other kids. "Have you heard about the war in Iraq?" or, "Have your teachers talked about the events taking place?" It's best to start with a question to find out how much your child knows and begin from there. Your child's answer may also give you a clue as to what she is really concerned about. Children this age will feel empowered by helping others. Suggest that your youngster engage in activities such as writing letters to children who might be affected by the traumatic event. Perhaps your family can donate money, clothing or supplies through the Red Cross http://www.redcross.org/ , the Salvation Army http://www.salvationarmy.org, or other community-building organizations. Encourage your children to engage in coping strategies such as writing a song or drawing pictures. Introduce stories such as The Sound of Music that reflect how people triumphed in difficult times.

When to seek professional help

If a parent or other loved one is directly involved or affected by tragic events, we recommend that you talk with a professional to help your child deal with anxiety or other troubling feelings he may be having.

Some parents may be concerned about their children's reactions to traumatic events. Your child may want to sleep in your bed, have nightmares, or develop new fears. It is normal for children to express their fears in these ways. (Another way children's feelings are expressed is through play.) Because children tend to experience things more intensely than adults do, a strong reaction does not necessarily mean they are psychologically troubled. Your child may need extra help to get through this ordeal if any of the following continues for more than one month: nightmares, new fears, shock, anxiety, helplessness, sleeplessness, regression (immature behavior), or depression. If you notice that your child is overly aggressive or withdrawn, you may want to consider professional help. Children who have experienced a past traumatic event (abuse, bullying, or death of a family member) are particularly at risk for trauma-related stress.