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Helping Kids Cope with DisasterDisasters happen.  Sometimes we have plenty of advance warning.  Sometimes we don’t.  The hurricane pounding the southeast this week gave people days to prepare or evacuate.  Fires, floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes are not so considerate.  But, all of these events are facts of life.  And, we all have to learn how to cope with the storms of life – both real and emotional. 

As parents, we have an extra burden – how do we keep our kids safe and well-adjusted if disaster strikes.  There are specific steps you can take before, during, and after an emergency that will help your children cope now and prepare them to cope better in the future.

Before the Storm

One of the best things we can do is to prepare our families to deal with emergencies BEFORE they happen. The time to start helping your child cope with an emergency is right now while everything is calm and normal. 

  • Have a Plan. A Family Disaster Plan is a simple, effective tool – there is really no excuse NOT to have one in place. Here’s a terrific Family Emergency Plan Template provided by FEMA to get you started.  Once completed, practice your Family Disaster Plan so that everyone will remember what to do when a disaster does occur.
  • Recognize the Signals. Make sure your child knows what smoke detectors, fire alarms and local community warning systems (horns, sirens) sound like and what to do when he hears them.
  • Know how to get Help. Teach your child how and when to call for help. If you live in a 9-1-1 service area, tell your child to call 9-1-1. Even very young children can be taught how and when to call for emergency assistance. Role play different scenarios in which your child might need to make the call so that she can practice.
  • Memorize the Important Stuff. Children should memorize their family name, address and phone number. They should also know where to meet in case of an emergency. A Family Safety Card can be a valuable tool in helping kids remember all the important stuff.  The card can be safety-pinned to an inside pocket of a young child’s bookbag.  Be sure the child knows to only share the card with “safe” people – his teacher, babysitter, a police person.

During a Disaster

These events can be nerve-wracking for adults, but they are often traumatic for children who don’t know what to do. Children may become anxious, confused or frightened.  You play a particularly important role in how your child copes.  Children take their emotional cues from the adults around them.  As an adult, you’ll need to cope with the disaster in a way that will help children avoid developing a permanent sense of loss. Some points to remember during an emergency

  • STAY CALM.  If you are under control, it is more likely that your child will maintain control as well
  • BE HONEST.  Tell your child the truth about what is happening and what to expect.  Some of our worst fears live in our imaginations so give children a realistic, manageable picture of the event.
  • BE COMPASSIONATE. Take the time to listen to your child’s fears.  Just feeling heard and understood during a chaotic period can help tremendously


Children thrive in a stable environment with supportive routines. Disasters have a way of turning all of that upside down.   Children may respond with increased anxiety or emotional and behavioral problems. Sometimes earlier behavior patterns, such as bed wetting and separation anxiety, may reappear. Older children may react to physical and emotional disruptions with aggression or withdrawal. For more detailed information about what to expect, here’s a terrific handout that discusses each age group.

Some of the ways you can reduce your child’s fear and anxiety immediately after a disaster include:

  • Stay together.  It is tempting to leave your children with relatives or friends while you sort out the damage and make plans. But children often worry that their parents won’t return. Instead, keep the family together as much as possible and make children a part of what you are doing to get the family back on its feet.
  • Stay open and honest. As best as you can, tell children what you know about the disaster. Explain what will happen next. For example, say, “Tonight, we will all stay together in the shelter.” Get down to the child’s eye level and talk to them. Knowing what to expect can ease anxiety and return a sense of control.
  • Stay in touch.Both physically – by hugging and touching your child often – and emotionally – by talking.  Let children talk about the disaster and ask questions as much as they want. Encourage children to describe what they’re feeling. Listen to what they say. If possible, include the entire family in the discussion. Be aware that after a disaster, children are most afraid that:
    • The event will happen again.
    • Someone will be injured or killed.
    • They will be separated from the family.
    • They will be left alone.
  • Stay inclusive. Include children in recovery activities. Give children chores that are their responsibility. This will help children feel they are part of the recovery. Having a task will help them understand that everything will be all right.  Re-establish a routine for meals, bed-time, and school as soon as possible. 

Children are generally resilient.  With your help, they will be able to cope with an emergency.  The experience can even lead to a greater sense of competence.  If your child seems to be experiencing prolonged anxiety or behavioral issues, please seek out the help of a professional. 

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