Supporting kids through the healing process after a disaster

Joanne S Caye Clinical Associate Professor School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

With the increased presence of social media, computers, TVs and smart phones, today’s parents are challenged with determining how to respond to their children’s questions and reactions after a disaster. How do you talk to your 6-year-old daughter about the children who were killed in Newtown, Connecticut? What is the best way to open a conversation with your teenage son about safety without making him--or yourself--unreasonably fearful?

While there are many different answers depending on you and your children, there are a few guiding principles that most researchers and psychologists agree upon.


Do consider how you and your spouse or partner react to disasters

When a disaster occurs, the first step is to sit down with your spouse or partner and talk about how you tend to react to news of disasters. Do you find yourself glued to the television or computer to hear every possible new piece of information? After Hurricane Katrina, did you lose track of time because you watched every new development? Or did you turn your television and computer off, listening to just select, brief news reports? These characteristics are important because your children will watch your reactions and take their cues from you. How comfortable are you having conversations with your children about very difficult, almost unanswerable issues? Take some time to ponder these questions before a disaster event occurs.

Do work toward an agreement with your spouse or partner about how to respond

Children tend to do better when their parents react in similar ways. It is critical for them to have models to show them at least one way to respond. When parents have very different reactions, children (especially young children) are more confused and feel less sure that things will be okay.

Do be aware of media coverage

After the Challenger disaster and the events of 9/11, researchers discovered that children who had no family or local connection to the event were extremely affected after continuously watching pictures on TV. If you are someone who is inclined to leave on the TV or radio to hear the latest news, you may need to wait until after your child’s bedtime to listen. However, be prepared for questions because children talk to each other at school, or hear their parents or older siblings talking about news events.

Do help older children respond actively

Often, older children want to “do something” in response to tragedy. There are many stories of the ways in which older children and adolescents have provided meaningful support to those experiencing a disaster. If you and your family have been affected by a disaster, you may be able to provide your children with something to do, which is necessary and meaningful. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, teens in some shelters helped to entertain the younger kids. While this is not a required chore, it is a good way to help cope at a very difficult time.

Do answer your child’s questions

Offer children brief facts that take into account the child’s age and mental abilities. Remember that basic facts are enough. Listen carefully to the question and try to answer it gently, honestly and with care. If someone is dead, be sure to say just that. Telling a child that a person is “sleeping” or “gone” is confusing, especially when you sleep every day and don’t disappear forever. It is okay to answer, “I don’t know,” or to admit that the situation is also very confusing to you as well.


Do not enter into a conversation without doing your own preparation

A child or teen can innocently ask questions, which are very painful to adults. They may ask over and over if someone is really dead and won’t he or she come back tomorrow? It is not helpful to tell them they should not talk about the situation like that, or to tell them to go play with their toys and leave that kind of talk to the adults. Be aware that your child may still be angry, dissatisfied with your answer, or simply not want talk about it at all. Sometimes, you may need to be the one to bring up the conversation.

Do not assume your children will respond the same way as you

We all have situations that trigger our emotions. The same applies to our children--and these triggers may not be the same as yours. Just because your children’s reactions may be different from yours, it does not automatically mean there is something wrong with their response.

Do not cover or mask your own reaction

Although it is not always good for children to see their parents completely out of control or hysterical after a disaster, it is perfectly understandable for parents to display their sadness or anger. This is important so children can understand that showing emotion does not mean they are unable to carry on.

Do not be afraid to ask for help

There are many websites that offer parental advice about talking with children or taking care of yourself after a disaster. Additionally, there are numerous professionals who can help you determine if your child’s reaction is something you should be concerned about. The longer that you and your child continue to be inconsolable, the more likely you will need help managing the negative effects of the disaster.

Do not believe that children can’t recover

With support and guidance, children can fully recover from exposure to a disaster event. Generally, the more that children and their families have been exposed to a disaster, the more work it takes to overcome the experience. But it can be done.

Jumping cartoon

As a parent, remember that you know your child better than anyone else. Therefore, if a disaster occurs, you will already have a good sense of how to speak to your child and how to help him or her understand what has happened and what it means. To be the best help to your child, do some thinking about your own reactions to disasters and talk with your spouse or partner about their reactions. It is perfectly acceptable to ask for help--either for yourself or for your child. There are many websites that can help, as well as professionals who are trained to assist children and families after a disaster. Remember that most families will regain their balance with support and care.

More expert advice about Tackling Family Problems and Conflict

Photo Credits: dont be scared by shira gal via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Joanne S CayeClinical Associate Professor

MSW, 1982, UNC Chapel Hill Doctoral Candidate in Education, North Carolina State University Social worker for local and state agencies for 20 years Taught in the School of Social Work for 20 years, currently a Clinical Assistant Professor Ta...

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