Tips for Talking to Children After a Disaster
Children respond to trauma in many different ways. Some may have reactions very soon after
the event; others may seem to be doing fine for weeks or months, and then begin to show worrisome behavior. Knowing the signs that are common at different ages can help parents and teachers to recognize problems and respond appropriately.
Children from age 1 to 5 find it particularly hard to adjust to change and loss.
These youngsters have not yet developed their own coping skills, so they must depend
on parents, family members, and teachers to help them through difficult times.
Very young children may regress to an earlier behavioral stage after a traumatic event.
Children age 5 to 11 may have some of the same reactions as younger children. They may also withdraw from play groups and friends, compete more for the attention of parents, fear going to school, allow school performance to drop, become aggressive, or find it hard to
Children age 12 to 14 are likely to have vague physical complaints when under stress and may
abandon chores, schoolwork, and other responsibilities they previously handled.
These young people are at a developmental stage in which the opinions of others
are very important.
How to Help
Reassurance is the key to helping children through a traumatic time. Very young
children need a lot of cuddling, as well as verbal support. Answer questions about the
disaster honestly, but don’t dwell on frightening details or allow the subject to dominate
family or classroom time indefi nitely. Encourage children of all ages to express emotions
through conversation, drawing, or painting and to fi nd a way to help others who were
affected by the disaster.
- Provide children with opportunities to talk about what they are seeing on television and to ask questions.
- Don’t be afraid to admit that you can’t answer all their questions.
Answer questions at a level the child can understand.
- Provide ongoing opportunities for children to talk. They will probably have more
questions as time goes on.
- Use this as an opportunity to establish a family emergency plan. Feeling that there is something you can do may be very comforting to both children and adults.
- Allow children to discuss other fears and concerns about unrelated issues. This is a good opportunity to explore these issues also.
- Monitor children’s television watching. Some parents may wish to limit their child’s exposure to graphic or troubling scenes. To the extent possible, watch reports of the
disaster with children. It is at these times that questions might arise.
- Help children understand that there are no bad emotions and that a wide range of
reactions is normal. Encourage children to express their feelings to adults (including
teachers and parents) who can help them understand their sometimes strong and and
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