Disasters can be especially stressful for children and teens. Young people are less likely to understand the events affecting them, have less control and decision-making opportunities than adults, and often have less experience coping with highly stressful situations. Children and teens are more likely to experience trauma due to a disaster, as they are more likely to be severely injured, have little to no knowledge of safety precautions, and understand less about the situation.
As a parent and/or guardian, there are steps you can take to ensure your child is better equipped to respond to disasters and cope with common reactions.
Disaster Planning for Families
You and your family can take several steps before a disaster occurs to ensure your child’s safety and resilience in case of an emergency event. No matter your child’s age, try to include them in planning for emergencies by encouraging their participation in the following steps:
- Create emergency kits for your family. Discuss what you may need during an emergency and ensure there are enough supplies for all household members, including pets.
- Develop an emergency evacuation and reunification plan for events where your home may not be safe or family members are separated. Decide on an alternative meeting location that is recognizable for all household members.
- Discuss safety drills that your child may experience in school. Encourage them to find strategies they learned during safety drills that could be incorporated in your household emergency plans.
Common Reactions in Young People
Disasters can be just as frightening and stressful for children and teens as they are for adults. Just like adults, young people can experience reactions as they attempt to cope with anxiety, frustration, and fear. These reactions can occur for a few weeks to a month after the event and should be monitored.
The following reactions are common for children and teens of all ages:
- Experiencing issues sleeping, having nightmares, or not wanting to sleep alone.
- Expressing extreme concern for the well-being of others, or fear that the disaster is not over.
- Expressing fear of being separated from parent or caregiver.
- Feeling detached, isolated, or vulnerable.
- Engaging in violent, aggressive, or dangerous activities or play. For older children and teens, this can include alcohol or drug use and sexual behaviors.
- Losing interest in activities they previously enjoyed.
- Being unable to complete tasks they completed before, such as talking, walking, reading, or writing. This can include experiencing difficulty in school.
- Complaining of headaches, stomachaches, or muscle aches often.
- Going through abrupt and radical changes in attitude and shifts in relationships with family and friends.
- Repeatedly wanting to talk about and play out the event or avoiding all talk of the event.
Helping Your Child Cope
While reactions to disasters are common, children and teens may be unable to cope with their own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Parents and caregivers can help their children process and identify their emotions and reactions through the following strategies:
- Encourage your child to express their thoughts, feelings, and concerns. For children who cannot express themselves verbally, encourage drawing or coloring as an emotional outlet and discuss their work with them.
- Create and follow routines throughout the day so your child knows what to expect.
- Let your child make choices over small things throughout the day to help them feel in control. This can include choices over what they eat or wear or how they play.
- Avoid extended separations from your child. For brief separations, help your child express their feelings and explain where you are going and when you will return. If you must be separated for an extended amount of time, have your child stay with familiar people in a familiar environment.
- Engage in positive activities together where you give your child undivided attention. Try to include family members and friends to encourage interpersonal relationships.
- Help your child process nervousness, stress, or frustration through activities such as stretching, running, sports, and deep breathing exercises.
- Provide age-appropriate, consistent explanations in response to questions or concerns from your child. Remain matter of fact with your responses and avoid voicing your own fears or concerns.
- Limit your child’s access to dangerous and high-risk activities.
- Limit your child’s access to media coverage of the event, and monitor their use of television, radio, internet, and social media. If possible, steer your child toward positive media coverage of the event.
- Set an example by taking care of yourself, making time for stress management activities, and discussing your own emotions and reactions with a loved one or healthcare professional.
To best support your child after a disaster, it is not recommended to keep them isolated from family and friends for long periods of time, force them to discuss the event before they feel ready, or force them to engage in activities they do not want to.
Supporting your child throughout this period can be frustrating and upsetting, but it is important to know these reactions will often go away on their own and will not seriously affect your child’s development and well-being.
When To Seek Professional Support
While behavioral and emotional reactions after a disaster are common, you may consider talking to a healthcare professional if your child’s reactions continue for more than 2 to 4 weeks after the disaster, worsen over time, or affect their usual routines.
The following collection of resources will help you in supporting your child after a disaster:
- Building Resilience in Children Through Coping Skills
- Caring for Children in a Disaster
- Children and Adolescents
- Help Kids Cope
- How Families Can Prepare for Emergencies
- Ready Wrigley
- Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event: A Guide for Parents, Caregivers, and Teachers (Spanish, Punjabi)