Helping Your Kids Cope With A Natural Disaster

As pretty much everyone knows by now, the people here in my current home city of Houston, and many other parts of Texas, have recently suffered a horrific hurricane which brought frightening winds, unfathomable flooding, and unrelenting tornados. Consequently, the storm caused lives to be lost, displaced tens of thousands of people from their homes, and caused billions of dollars in damage that will take years to remedy. Undeniably, this was, and will continue to be, an incredibly traumatic event for many people.

The physical destruction of hurricanes and other natural disasters is often pretty obvious. We see it on TV, we see it driving down the streets of ruined homes, we see it in shelters for those who have lost so much. What is less obvious is the impact such events may have on a person emotionally, cognitively, and even spiritually. Although these effects may be less obvious impacts of a natural disaster, they often require just as much attention and care as the physical rebuilding.

After experiencing a natural disaster such as a hurricane, it’s not uncommon for people to experience overwhelming stress during and  after the traumatic event. This stress can manifest as a variety of symptoms, such as:

Physical: sleeplessness; numbness; stomachaches; headaches; over/under-eating.

Emotional: anger; feelings of helplessness; sadness; depression; numbness; detachment.

Cognitive: sudden, intense, and disturbing vivid recollections of the event; concentration and/or memory issues; a sudden desire to achieve things that have been deferred (i.e. traveling, quitting a job, etc.); questioning old beliefs and values about oneself, others and/or the world.

If you are a parent or caregiver, you may also be wondering how your children are handling everything. The thing about children is that they are WAY more behavioral when it comes to expressing distress than adults are. Adults can often talk about their feelings and link their behavior (like crying) to those feelings. That’s not always the case with children. Young people will act out in ways that may not seem related to the natural disaster, so it can be very helpful to know typical behaviors seen in children who are processing a traumatic event.

While I have listed out many of these typical, temporary behaviors below, if your child is trying to hurt themselves or others, or if these behaviors last more than a few weeks or seem to continue getting worse, please seek immediate professional assistance. It is generally better to err on the side of caution.

1-7 Year Old Children: (These are approximate ages)

  • Physical pains such as stomachache and headache
  • Seeming confused
  • Heightened startle response to loud or sudden noises
  • Anxiety, fear, crying
  • Trouble with sleep
  • Clinging to their caregiver and showing fear of separation
  • Bedwetting or regression in both physical and verbal abilities
  • Repeatedly playing out the hurricane (children process things through play, so acting out the hurricane with toys is completely normal and can actually be a healthy way for them to begin to understand what has happened and express their thoughts and feelings surrounding the storm)

7- 11 Year Olds: (In addition to the behaviors listed above)

  • TEMPORARY decrease in school performance
  • Preoccupation with safety
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Closely watching caregivers to evaluate their anxiety/fear levels

12-18 Year Olds:

  • Depression, anxiety, general worrying, and trouble with sleep and concentration
  • TEMPORARY problems with school performance and attendance
  • Becoming withdrawn
  • Becoming more accident prone
  • Acting out at home by rebelling
  • Change in future plans (Ex:“I’m not going on that summer trip now”) or a shortened view of the future (only focusing on the here and now or things in the immediate future)
  • Over/under-eating
  • Becoming focused completely on themselves
  • Revenge seeking
  • Engaging in distracting behaviors (such as substance use and risk taking)
  • Suicide pacts (*Seek immediate help*)
  • Life- threatening reenactment of the traumatic event (*Seek immediate help*)

After spotting some of the above behaviors, here are several techniques that you can use to aid in your child’s emotional and cognitive healing:

  1. Give your child the opportunity to grieve their loss(es). It might seem silly to listen to a child lament about losing his/her toy car when you or others may have lost everything; but to children, those cars WERE everything. Be understanding and compassionate and do not minimize their grief.
  2. Limit exposure to TV coverage of the event if possible.
  3. Give your children age-appropriate information about the event, and include context. This free, printable brochure will help provide context and help you get the conversation started.
  4. Stick to your old routines as much as possible or create new, but CONSISTENT, routines if the old ones are not possible.
  5. DO NOT punish your child for any regressions in behavior. Like I said above, it’s just one way a child may process trauma. I know it’s tough on you as an adult, but it will pass.
  6. PRAISE age appropriate behavior. Maybe you are past applauding every time your toddler uses the potty, but now is the time to boost your child up and start clapping again.
  7. Involve your children in the rebuilding process: take them with you when you bring a meal to someone in need, see if they have toys they can donate to others, give them a chore to help them clean your home, etc. This will help them feel control over putting the world back to how it was and it can be very powerful and healing.
  8. Give your children the chance to talk about what has happened but do not pressure them to discuss it. They will discuss it when they are ready as long as you keep giving them chances to- but they might not be ready any time soon.
  9. Remember that poor performance in school or attendance is usually temporary, but definitely consult your child’s school if you notice this happening. Being on the same page will only help your child.
  10. DO NOT ignore threats of self-harm or harm to others. Call the school counselor or seek a therapist’s help immediately.
  11. Create a disaster plan for your family and create an emergency preparation kit. This will help you and your family to feel more prepared and more in control of another potential natural disaster and will give you the chance to discuss what has happened.
  12. If someone experiences symptoms for longer than a month, if they begin to want to hurt themselves or others, or if the symptoms seem to be getting worse and worse, they should seek out professional help. There is no shame in seeking counseling.
  13. To talk to a someone trained to help you process this type of event the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA) provides a natural disaster distress helpline that is available to you 24/7/365.

    TTY: 1-800-846-8517
    Text TalkWithUs to 66746

  14. Creating art with kids is also another great way to help them both express and process feelings they may not otherwise be able to. For kids, doing art projects often just feels like doing something fun with their parent, but as an adult you will often notice themes or thoughts pop up in their work, or in the conversations you have while working on the project, that can let you know what your child is thinking or feeling. The above link has many great ideas for processing a natural disaster before, during, and after the event.
  15. While this post focuses on cognitive and emotional coping, it is very common for people to seek spiritual guidance after a natural disaster.  Your spiritual community and leaders will likely be wonderful resources to you during this time and, additionally, feel free to read this post by my friend, Gillian, in which she discusses her family’s experience with Hurricane Harvey and in seeking comfort in scripture.

Lastly, many adults, especially parents, may find themselves putting on a brave face for the sake of their families in situations like this. While that can help alleviate fear for others in the moment, I urge you to find a time and place to process your underlying thoughts and feelings with another adult. It’s so easy in situations such as this to eliminate self-care in an effort to make time for everyone and everything else, but you need to care for yourself FIRST so that you can care for others. Rest when you can, eat when you can, accept help when you can, and exercise and try to stick to your routines as best as you can. (I know that is all so much easier said than done!) DO NOT feel guilty for working out, showering, or spending an hour on the phone with a friend if it helps you relax. Also DO NOT feel bad for utilizing charitable services such as daycares, laundry, meals, mobile showers, demolition and/or repairs services, etc. These stress-outlets and resources are available to help you get back to normal, and the more you can eliminate these worries, the more relaxed you will feel, and the better your mental health.

I hope some of these tips will help you and your family get through these storms. Know that you are not alone and you WILL get through this.



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****DISCLAIMER**** is an informational site only. The resources on this site are provided for informational purposes only, and should not be used to replace the specialized training and professional judgment of a physical or mental health care professional with specific knowledge about your situation and needs. My own thoughts, opinions, and research, including materials published, made publically available, by The American Counseling Association, were utilized to write this post., or any other person or group, cannot be held responsible for the use of the information provided. Please always consult a trained mental health professional before making any decision regarding treatment of yourself or others.
Self-help information and information from the Internet is useful, but it is not a substitute for professional assistance. As I mentioned throughout my post, please seek professional help immediately if you or someone else:
  • have thoughts of killing (or otherwise harming) yourself or others;
  • are gravely disabled (unable to care for yourself);
  • are abusing substances; or,
  • are in any danger of harm.
One of the goals of is to offer resources and information to those dealing with mental health issues; however, we cannot, and will not, assume the role of your physician or mental health therapist.
If you are in need of help, please contact a crisis clinic, or a qualified physical, or mental health care provider for direct, specialized advice.

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