Natural Disaster

By Vanessa Rasmussen, © 2004, All rights reserved.

Disasters may strike quickly and without warning. They may weather-related, as in tornadoes, hurricanes, or floods; accident-related, as in bus or automobile deaths or drowning; illness-related as in AIDS, cancer or other deaths due to illness; or bizarre and unusual, as in the case of snipers or a murder. These events may be frightening for adults, but they are incredibly traumatic for children if they don't know what to do. Helping young people avoid or overcome emotional problems in the wake of violence or disaster is one of the most important challenges a parent, teacher, or mental health professional can face.

Children may be frightened by the disaster itself, or be upset by disruptions that a disaster might cause in their daily routines or their relationships with parents, teachers, and friends. It is not unusual for children to show changes in behaviors that may be signs or symptoms of distress or discomfort following a disaster.

Children are most afraid of:

  • The event might happen again
  • Being separated from their family
  • Someone they love might get injured or killed
  • They will be left alone

Children might become easily upset, or cry and whine more frequently. Some may have loss of appetite or sleep. Others might display aggressive behavior or withdraw in their shell. These changes in behavior are common in children who have been through a disaster, and are natural responses to stress. Some of these symptoms may last for weeks or months, but should fade out over time. Except for extreme circumstances (when a family member is killed or severely injured or the child is hurt or traumatized), most children do not develop serious or permanent psychological problems.

Parents and other family members can chalk out a disaster relief plan wherein they can determine the hazards existing in their community and how to work their way around dangerous situations. Lay out emergency contact numbers, helpline numbers and install devices and systems in your house such as smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, alarm systems, etc. Make sure that every member of your family is aware of the plan and is prepared for an emergency.

In the event that a disaster occurs, be very calm and supportive for your children's sake. Early intervention to help children and adolescents who have suffered trauma from violence or a disaster is critical. Parents, teachers and mental health professionals can do a great deal to help these youngsters recover. Help should begin at the scene of the traumatic event. Set aside some time to comfort your children. Encourage children to talk so that they do not bottle up their emotions. Let children and adolescents know that it is normal to feel upset after something bad happens. Try to focus children's attention to those within and outside of the family such as social workers, fire fighters, policemen, etc. who face the adversity or who provide support.

You can help children cope by understanding what causes their anxieties and fears. Reassure them with firmness and love so that they realize that life will eventually return to normal.

Copyright 2001, 2004. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article in whole or in part without written or verbal permission is strictly prohibited. For information about reprinting this article, contact the copyright owner: Vanessa Rasmussen, Ph.D, Starting a Day Care Center,