Tips to help children emotionally survive a natural disaster

Strategies to help children emotionally cope with the devastation of natural disasters.

Natural disasters are scary for everyone, especially young children.
Natural disasters are scary for everyone, especially young children.

In 2016, there were 750 natural catastrophes reported around the world. These disasters are emotionally devastating to children because they do not have the life experience to handle traumatic events. Children are dependent on the adults in their lives to provide a sense of security and assistance in managing their emotions.

 According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), the severity of a child’s reaction will depend on specific risk factors such as the type of disaster, personal injury and loss, previous trauma experience and mental illness. In general, the behaviors exhibited may be:

  • Preschoolers. Thumb sucking, bed-wetting, clinging to parents, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, fear of the dark, regression in behavior and withdrawal from friends and routines
  • Elementary school children. Irritability, aggressiveness, clinginess, nightmares, school avoidance, poor concentration and withdrawal from activities and friends
  • Adolescents.  Sleeping and eating disturbances, agitation, increase in conflicts, physical complaints, delinquent behavior and poor concentration

Some children may also exhibit extreme behavior, thoughts of suicide and post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). Seek professional mental health services for the child if these behaviors are displayed.

The NASP urges parents to utilize the following tips to help a child through this traumatic time: 

  • Remain calm and reassuring. Children take their cues from adults. If possible, assure them that family and friends will take care of them and that life will return to normal.
  • Acknowledge and normalize their feelings. Allow children to discuss their feelings and concerns and address any questions they may have regarding the event. Listen, empathize and let their questions be the guide.
  • Encourage children to talk about disaster-related events. Children need an opportunity to discuss their experiences in a safe, accepting environment. Provide activities that enable children to process their experiences.
  • Promote positive coping and problem-solving skills. Activities should teach children how to apply problem-solving skills to disaster-related stressors. Encourage children to develop realistic and positive methods of coping that increase their ability to manage their anxiety.
  • Emphasize children’s resiliency. Focus on their competencies. Help children identify what they have done in the past that helped them cope when they were frightened or upset.
  • Strengthen children’s friendship and peer support. Children with strong emotional support from others are better able to cope with adversity. Children’s relationships with peers can provide suggestions for how to cope and can help decrease isolation.
  • Take care of your own needs. Take time for yourself. Try to deal with your own reactions to the situation. You will be better able to help your children if you are coping well. If you are anxious or upset, your children may feel the same way. Avoid using drugs or alcohol to feel better.

To learn about the positive impact children and families experience due to Michigan State University Extension programs, read our 2016 impact report: Preparing young children for success and Preparing the future generation for success. Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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