Helping Children with Disabilities Cope with Disaster and Traumatic Events

A father talking with his concerned daughter

When a disaster or traumatic event occurs, such as a natural disaster or violent act, whether accidental or intentional, it can be stressful for people of all ages. Children tend to react to disaster and traumatic events based on their past experiences and what they know of the current situation. Children with disabilities may require extra support from an adult to help them cope with disaster or traumatic events.

There are things that adults can do to help children with disabilities cope better with a disaster or traumatic event.

What Can You Do?

The following tips will help reduce stress before, during, and after a disaster or traumatic event.

  • As with all children, those with disabilities need to know that they are going to be safe and that they can find a safe place in an emergency.
  • Review safety plans before a disaster or emergency happens. Having a plan will increase the child’s confidence and help him or her feel under control. For example, a plan should include needed medications or assistance devices. Learn more about emergency preparedness for children with disabilities.
  • Stay calm and reassure the child.
  • Talk to children about what is happening in a way that they can understand.   Keep it simple and consider the child’s age and type of disability. For example, it may be hard to know how much information a child with autism is learning through television and conversations. For these children, it is important for adults to look for cues that may provide information on their feelings and fears.
  • Provide children with opportunities to talk about what they went through or what they think about it. Encourage them to share concerns and ask questions.
  • Children who have serious emotional and behavioral problems are at high risk for severe stress after a disaster or traumatic event. In many cases, it may help to maintain as much of a normal routine and environment as possible.
  • It is difficult to predict how some children will respond to disasters and traumatic events. Because parents, teachers, and other adults see children in different situations, it is essential that they work together to share information about how the child is coping after a traumatic event.

More Information on Coping with Disaster and Traumatic Events

General Information

Caring for Children in a Disaster
This web site from CDC has information for families, schools, and healthcare providers during and after crises and disasters.

Children and Youth—SAMHSA Disaster Behavioral Health Information Series installmentexternal icon
This SAMHSA Disaster Behavioral Health Information Series installment focuses on the reactions and mental health needs of children with special needs after a disaster.

Coping with Crisis—Helping Children With Special Needsexternal icon
This website provides tips for helping children cope with terrorism.

For Parents

Tips for Talking to Children: Interventions At Home for Preschoolers to Adolescentsexternal icon
This tip sheet provides recommendations to help children share feelings and experiences following exposure to a disaster or traumatic event. Interventions for parents are provided to help them engage with preschoolers, elementary age children, preadolescents and adolescents.

Helping Your Children Manage Distress in the Aftermath of a Shootingexternal icon
This website from the American Psychological Association provides recommendations for parents who may be struggling with how to talk with their children following a shooting. The website provides tips and strategies for helping children manage their distress.

Tips for Parents on Media Coverage pdf icon[PDF | 52 KB]external icon
This tip sheet provides information for parents on how to limit a child’s exposure to disturbing media images.

For Teachers and Other School Staff

Helping students cope with media coverage of disasters: A fact sheet for teachers and school staff pdf icon[PDF | 307 KB]external icon
This fact sheet provides an overview of how media coverage of a disaster may affect students and suggests strategies that people working in schools can use to address these effects. The strategies described in this fact sheet can be used by teachers, school counselors, school social workers, other school staff members, and school administrators.

A Practical Guide for Crisis Response in Our Schoolsexternal icon
This guide provides information to assist schools in responding effectively to “everyday crises” as well as school-based disasters. The guide offer strategies to potentially prevent violent school-based tragedies, assists educators in identifying students who may be at greatest risk and know when to refer to support staff, reviews protocol for managing crisis situations, and discusses practical strategies for addressing the emergent needs of students during times of crisis.

Tips for Talking with Children after a Traumatic Event

Restoring a Sense of Safety in the Aftermath of a Mass Shooting: Tips for Parents and Professionals pdf icon[PDF – 362 KB]external icon
This tip sheet from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress (CSTS) includes tips for communicating effectively with children, strategies for safety and planning for future emergencies, and answers to commonly asked questions.

Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event: A Guide for Parents, Caregivers, and Teachersexternal icon
This tip sheet helps parents, caregivers, and teachers to recognize and address stress responses in children and youth affected by traumatic events such as automobile accidents and disasters. It describes stress reactions that are commonly seen in young trauma survivors from various age groups and offers tips on how to help, as well as various resources.

Other Resources

Disaster Distress Helpline: icon
1-800-985-5990, or text ‘TalkWithUs’ to 66746. For deaf/hearing impaired: 1-800-846-8517
The Helpline is staffed by trained counselors from a network of crisis call centers located across the United States. They can provide crisis counseling, information on how to recognize distress and its effects on individuals and families, tips for healthy coping, and referrals to local crisis call centers.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network: icon
Visit this website for guidance and tools related to disasters, including specific information for parents and caregivers, military children and families, and for teachers.