Helping Your Child Cope with a Disaster
Disasters are stressful events that can cause substantial harm to communities and families. After a disaster, children may develop symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Mental health plays an important role in physical health, school performance, behavior, and long-term quality of life. Therefore, it is important to keep children physically and mentally safe during and after a disaster.
Why are children at risk for mental health issues after a disaster?
Emotional stress from a disaster can be harder on children because they:
- Understand less about the situation;
- Feel less able to control events;
- Have less experience dealing with stressful situations; and
- May not be able to communicate their feelings, such as fear or anxiety.
In addition, children who have previously experienced trauma or have a pre-existing mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral disorder can be particularly vulnerable before a disaster occurs. For example, children with autism, as well as infants and toddlers, may have difficulty communicating their thoughts and feelings. Parents and caregivers can take steps to help their children cope with traumatic events.
How can parents and caregivers help children cope with a disaster?
- Discuss plans for emergencies and include your child in creating emergency supply kits and emergency action plans.
- Have a plan to reunite with family members as children may be separated from their caregivers during an emergency. If family members cannot return to their home, having an alternative meeting location, such as a community center, can help them reunite after a disaster.
- Learn about safety drills taking place in your child’s school or early care and education facility from the administrators and safety officials. Since drills vary by state, you can also look on your state’s Department of Education web page. Talk with your child’s teacher or early care and education professionals about how to help your child see safety drills as empowering rather than frightening.
- Answer your child’s questions truthfully in a way that they can understand. You can also correct misinformation about the event.
- Set an example for your child by managing your stress and returning to your normal routine and encouraging your child to do the same. Proceeding with your normal daily routine, such as eating meals as a family or returning to school and work, can help reduce stress.
- If your child’s routines and environment are disrupted, and if you and other caregivers are not able to provide the same consistent care as before, talk about the changes, how long they will last, and what you are doing to create routines and structures.
- Give your child opportunities to talk about what they went through, or what they think about it. Encourage your child to share concerns and ask questions.
- Allow your child to be with you or another trusted adult who can help your child feel safe and calm and give them a sense of hope. Children can handle disruptions in care better if they know they are temporary.
- Limit exposure to media coverage of the disaster and its aftermath. Children who are directly exposed to a disaster can become upset again if they see or hear reminders of what happened.
- Work with teachers and other adults, who see your child in different situations, to share information about how your child is coping.
When should parents and caregivers seek help from a professional?
Immediately after a disaster, children and adolescents may have these common emotional and behavioral reactions:
- Ages 1 to 5: Acting anxious, such as fear of being separated from caregiver or other new or increased fears, anger and frustration, unusual disobedience, withdrawing from others, less interest playing, and difficulty sleeping.
- Ages 6 to 10: Increased anxiety such as fear of returning to school or other new or increased fears, anger and frustration, unusual disobedience, withdrawing from others, less interest in playing, sleep problems, and difficulty concentrating on tasks.
- Ages 11 to 18: Rebellious behavior, antisocial behavior, increased anxiety and depression, sleep problems or excessive sleeping.
A child’s emotional reactions after a disaster can vary. Consider talking to your child’s healthcare professional if:
- Your child continues to be very upset (anxious, fearful, sad, angry) for more than 2 to 4 weeks after the disaster;
- Your child’s problems worsen instead of improve over time; or
- Your child’s reactions affect their behavior in early care and education settings, their schoolwork or relationships with friends or family for a prolonged period.
Helping a child cope with a disaster can be a challenge for parents. Any time you feel it is necessary, reach out for professional help and support for you and your child. CALL or TEXT Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) Disaster Distress Hotline: 1-800-985-5990; People with deafness or hearing loss can use their preferred relay service to call 1-800-985-5990.
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