Helping Children After a Natural Disaster:
Information for Parents and Teachers
By Philip J. Lazarus, NCSP, Florida International University
Shane R. Jimerson, NCSP, University of California, Santa Barbara
Stephen E. Brock, NCSP, California State University, Sacramento
Natural disasters can be especially traumatic for children and youth. Experiencing a dangerous or
violent flood, storm, or earthquake is frightening even for adults, and the devastation to the familiar
environment (i.e., home and community) can be long lasting and distressing. Often an entire
community is impacted, further undermining a child’s sense of security and normalcy. These factors
present a variety of unique issues and coping challenges, including issues associated with specific
types of natural disasters, the need to relocate when home and/or community have been destroyed,
the role of the family in lessening or exacerbating the trauma, emotional reactions, and coping
Children look to the significant adults in their lives for guidance on how to manage their reactions
after the immediate threat is over. Parents, teachers, and other caregivers can help children and
youth cope in the aftermath of a natural disaster by remaining calm and reassuring children that they
will be all right. Immediate response efforts should emphasize teaching effective coping strategies,
fostering supportive relationships, and helping children understand their reactions.
Schools can help play an important role is in this process by providing a stable and familiar
environment. Through the support of caring adults school personnel can help children return to
normal activities and routines (to the extent possible), and provide an opportunity to transform a
frightening event into a learning experience.
Issues Associated With Specific Disasters
Hurricanes. Usually hurricanes are predicted days to weeks in advance, giving communities time
to prepare. These predictions give families time to gather supplies and prepare. At the same time,
however, these activities may generate fear and anxiety. Although communities can be made aware
of potential danger, there is always uncertainty about the exact location of where the hurricane will
impact. When a hurricane strikes, victims experience intense thunder, rain, lightning, and wind.
Consequently, startle reactions to sounds may be acute in the months that follow. Among a few
children subsequent storms may trigger panic reactions. Immediate reactions to hurricanes can
include emotional and physical exhaustion. In some instances children may experience survivor
guilt (e.g., that they were not harmed, while others were injured or killed).
Earthquakes. Aftershocks differentiate earthquakes from other natural disasters. Since there is no
clearly defined endpoint, the disruptions caused by continued tremors may increase psychological
distress. Unlike other natural disasters (e.g., hurricanes and certain types of floods), earthquakes
occur with virtually no warning. This fact limits the ability of disaster victims to make the
psychological adjustments that can facilitate coping. This relative lack of predictability also
significantly lessens feelings of control. While one can climb to higher ground during a flood, or
install storm shutters before a hurricane, there is usually no advance warning or immediate
preparation with earthquakes. Survivors may have to cope with reminders of the destruction (e.g.,
sounds of explosions, and the rumbling of aftershocks; smells of toxic fumes and smoke; and tastes
of soot, rubber, and smoke).
Tornadoes. Like earthquakes, tornadoes can bring mass destruction in a matter of minutes, and
individuals typically have little time to prepare. Confusion and frustration often follow. Similar to a
hurricane, people experience sensations during tornadoes that may generate coping challenges. It
can be difficult to cope with the sights and smells of destruction. Given the capricious nature of
tornadoes, survivor guilt has been observed to be an especially common coping challenge. For
instance, some children may express guilt that they still have a house to live in while their friend
next door does not.
Floods. These events are one of the most common natural disasters. Flash floods are the most
dangerous as they occur without warning; move at intense speeds; and can tear out trees, destroy
roads and bridges, and wreck buildings. In cases of dam failure the water can be especially
destructive. Sensations that may generate coping challenges include desolation of the landscape, the
smell of sludge and sodden property, coldness and wetness, and vast amounts of mud. Most floods
do not recede overnight, and many residents have to wait days or weeks before they can begin the
Recovery Can Take Time
Although the natural disasters may only last a short period, survivors can be involved with the
disaster aftermath for months or even years. Collaboration between the school crisis response team
and an assortment of community, state, and federal organizations and agencies is necessary to
respond to the many needs of children, families, and communities following a natural disaster.
Families are often required to deal with multiple people and agencies (e.g., insurance adjustors,
contractors, electricians, roofers, the Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency
(FEMA), and the Salvation Army). Healing in the aftermath of a natural disaster takes time;
however, advanced preparation and immediate response will facilitate subsequent coping and
Possible Reactions of Children and Youth to Natural Disasters
The severity of children’s reactions will depend on their specific risk factors. These include
exposure to the actual event, personal injury or loss of a loved one, level of parental support,
dislocation from their home or community, the level of physical destruction, and pre-existing risks,
such as a previous traumatic experience or mental illness. Adults should contact a professional if
children exhibit significant changes in behavior or any of the following symptoms over an extended
period of time.
!" Preschoolers—thumb sucking, bedwetting, clinging to parents, sleep disturbances, loss of
appetite, fear of the dark, regression in behavior, and withdrawal from friends and routines.
!" Elementary School Children—irritability, aggressiveness, clinginess, nightmares, school
avoidance, poor concentration, and withdrawal from activities and friends.
!" Adolescents—sleeping and eating disturbances, agitation, increase in conflicts, physical
complaints, delinquent behavior, and poor concentration.
A minority of children may be at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms can
include those listed above as well as re-experiencing the disaster during play and/or dreams;
anticipating or feeling that the disaster is happening again; avoiding reminders of the disaster;
general numbness to emotional topics; and increased arousal symptoms such as inability to
concentrate and startle reactions. Although rare, some adolescents may also be at increased risk of
suicide if they suffer from serious mental health problems like PTSD or depression. Again, adults
should seek professional mental health help for children exhibiting these symptoms.
Immediately Following a Natural Disaster: Information for Parents and Teachers
Remain calm and reassuring. Children take their cues from you, especially young children.
Acknowledge the loss or destruction, but emphasize the community’s efforts to cleanup and rebuild.
To the extent it is possible to do so, assure them that family and friends will take care of them and
that life will return to normal.
Acknowledge and normalize their feelings. Allow children to discuss their feelings and concerns,
and address any questions they may have regarding the event. Listen and empathize. An empathetic
listener is very important. Let them know that their reactions are normal and expected.
Encourage children to talk about disaster-related events. Children need an opportunity to
discuss their experiences in a safe, accepting environment. Provide activities that enable children to
discuss their experiences. This may include a range of methods (both verbal and nonverbal) and
incorporate varying projects (e.g., drawing, stories, music, drama, audio and video recording). Seek
the help of the school psychologist, counselor, or social worker if you need help with ideas or
managing the conversation.
Promote positive coping and problem-solving skills. Activities should teach children how to
apply problem-solving skills to disaster-related stressors. Encourage children to develop realistic
and positive methods of coping that increase their ability to manage their anxiety and to identify
which strategies fit with each situation.
Emphasize children’s resiliency. Focus on their competencies. Help children identify what they
have done in the past that helped them cope when they were frightened or upset. Bring their
attention to other communities that have experienced natural disasters and recovered (e.g., Miami,
FL and Charleston, SC).
Strengthen children’s friendship and peer support. Children with strong emotional support from
others are better able to cope with adversity. Children’s relationships with peers can provide
suggestions for how to cope and can help decrease isolation. In many disaster situations, friendships
may be disrupted because of family relocations. In some cases, parents may be less available to
provide support to their children because of their own distress and feelings of being overwhelmed.
Activities such as asking children to work cooperatively in small groups can help children
strengthen supportive relationships with their peers.
Take care of your own needs. Take time for yourself and try to deal with your own reactions to the
situation as fully as possible. You will be better able to help your children if you are coping well. If
you are anxious or upset, your children are more likely to feel the same way. Talk to other adults
such as family, friends, faith leaders, or counselors. It is important not to dwell on your fears or
anxiety by yourself. Sharing feelings with others often makes people feel more connected and
secure. Take care of your physical health. Make time, however small, to do things you enjoy. Avoid
using drugs or alcohol to feel better.
Immediately Following a Natural Disaster: Specific Information for Schools
Identify children and youth who are high risk and plan interventions. Risk factors are outlined
in the above section on children’s reactions. Interventions may include classroom discussions,
individual counseling, small group counseling, or family therapy. From classroom discussions, and
by maintaining close contact with teachers and parents, the school crisis response team can help
determine which students need counseling services. A mechanism also needs to be in place for self-
referral and parent-referral of students.
Provide time for students to discuss the disaster. Depending on the situation, teachers may be
able to guide this discussion in class, or students can meet with the school psychologist or other
mental health professional for a group crisis intervention. Classroom discussions help children to
make some sense of the disaster. They also encourage students to develop effective means of
coping, discover that their classmates share similar questions, and develop peer support networks.
Teachers should not be expected to conduct such discussions if children are severely impacted
or if they themselves are distressed.
Allow time for staff to discuss their feelings and share their experiences. Members of your
crisis team should also have the opportunity to receive support from a trained mental health
professional. Providing crisis intervention is emotionally draining and caregivers will need an
opportunity to process their crisis response. This could include teachers and other school staff if
they have been serving as crisis caregivers for students.
Secure additional mental health support. Although many caregivers are often willing to provide
support during the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, long-term services may be lacking.
School mental health professionals can help provide and coordinate mental health services, but it is
important to connect with community resources as well in order to provide such long-term
assistance. Ideally these relationships would be established in advance.
Helping Children Adjust to Relocation After a Natural Disaster
The frequent need to relocate after a disaster creates unique coping challenges. It may contribute to
the social, environmental, and psychological stress experienced by children and their families.
Children will be most impacted by the reactions of their parents and other family members, the
duration of the relocation, their natural coping style and emotional reactivity, and their ability to
stay connected with friends and other familiar people and activities. To the extent possible parents
and other caregivers should:
!" Provide opportunities for children to see friends.
!" Bring personal items that the child values when staying in temporary housing.
!" Establish some daily routines so that the child is able to have a sense of what to expect
(including returning to school as soon as possible).
!" Provide opportunities for children to share their ideas and listen carefully to their concerns
!" Be sensitive to the disruption that relocation may cause and be responsive to the child’s
!" Consider the developmental level and unique experiences of each child; it is important to
remember that as children vary, so will their responses to the disruption of relocation,
In addition, school personnel should:
!" Determine the status of every child in the school. Contact each child who is absent and keep
a record. Identify the needs of children whose home was destroyed or damaged.
!" Find out the phone numbers and addresses of every student that had to relocate. Encourage
classmates to write notes or make phone calls.
!" Develop an advisory committee of students to report back to school staff about what
resources and changes in routines will help students cope.
!" Listen to and observe students’ behavior. It takes time for children to understand and adjust
to disasters. It is perfectly normal for them to discuss the event over and over again. Provide
opportunities for children to discuss how they are coping. Use creative arts (e.g., drama, art,
music, photography) to help them express their emotions.
!" Help connect families to community resources. Bring agencies into the school that can deal
with needs related to housing, finances, and insurance. Ensure that children get any
necessary medical and emotional assistance.
!" Increase staffing for before and after school care. If possible, extend the service for
additional hours and even on weekends.
!" Incorporate information about the disaster into related subject areas, as appropriate. Science,
math, history, and language arts are especially relevant.
Adapted from Lazarus, P. J., & Jimerson, S. R., Brock, S. E. (2002). Natural Disasters. In S. E. Brock, P. J.
Lazarus, & S. R. Jimerson (Eds.), Best Practices in School Crisis Prevention and Intervention (pp. 435-450),
Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists and other crisis information posted on the
NASP website at www.nasponline.org.
©2003, National Association of School Psychologists, 4340 East West Highway #402, Bethesda, MD 20814
This booklet offers parents, caregivers,
and other adults suggestions on how
to help children cope with the effects of
disaster, as well as how to be prepared
before a disaster strikes.
Helping Children Cope with Disaster
Children can feel very frightened during a disaster and afterwards
some children will show temporary changes of behavior.
For most children these changes will be mild, not last long,
and diminish with time. However, reminders of what happened
could cause upsetting feelings to return and behavior changes to
emerge again. Watching scenes of the disaster on television can be
distressing for children, especially for younger children.
Younger children may return to bed-wetting, have difficulty sleeping,
and not want to be separated from their caregivers. Older children
may show more anger than usual, find concentrating at school
harder, and want to spend more time alone than usual.
Some children are more vulnerable, and their reactions can be more
severe and last for a longer period of time.
Factors that contribute to greater vulnerability include:
! Direct exposure to the disaster
This includes being evacuated, seeing injured or dying
people, being injured themselves, and feeling that their own
lives are threatened.
! Personal loss
This includes the death or serious injury of a family member,
close friend, or family pet.
! On-going stress from the secondary effects of disaster
This includes temporarily living elsewhere, losing contact
with their friends and neighbors, losing things that are
important to them, parental job loss, and the financial costs
of reestablishing their previous living conditions.
! Prior exposure to disaster or other traumatic event.
How parents and caregivers react to and cope with a disaster or
emergency situation can affect the way their children react. When
parents and caregivers or other family members are able to deal with
the situation calmly and conﬁ dently, they are often the best source of
support for their children. One way to help children feel more conﬁ dent
and in control is to involve them in preparing a family disaster plan
(refer to page 7).
CHILDREN’S REACTION TO DISASTER
The following are common reactions that children may exhibit
following a disaster. While the following descriptions are typical,
some children may exhibit none of these behaviors and others may
behave in ways not mentioned here.
BIRTH THROUGH 6 YEARS
Although infants may not have words
to describe their experiences, they can
retain memories. They may react by
being more irritable, crying more than
usual, or wanting to be held and cuddled
more. Preschool and kindergarten
children can feel helpless, powerless,
and frightened about being separated
from their caregivers.
7 THROUGH 10 YEARS
Older children can understand the
permanence of loss. They may become
preoccupied with the details of the traumatic
event and want to talk about it continually.
This preoccupation can interfere with their
concentration at school and affect their
academic performance. Children may hear
inaccurate information from their peers
which parents can clarify. They may fear
that the disaster will happen again and have
sad or angry feelings.
11 THROUGH 18 YEARS
As children mature, their responses
become more similar to those of adults.
Much of adolescence is focused on
moving out into the world. Following
a disaster, that world can seem more
dangerous and unsafe. Teenagers may
react by becoming involved in dangerous,
risk-taking behaviors, such as reckless
driving, and alcohol or drug use. Others
may become fearful of leaving home and
avoid social activity.
Teenagers can feel overwhelmed by their intense emotions,
yet unable to talk about them.
WHAT PARENTS AND CAREGIVERS CAN DO
It is important for parents and other caregivers to understand what is
causing a child’s anxieties and fears. Following a disaster, children
are most afraid that:
! The event will happen again.
! Someone close to them will be killed or injured.
! They will be left alone or separated from their family.
Parents and caregivers can
clarify misunderstandings of risk
and danger by acknowledging
children’s concerns and perceptions.
Discussions of preparedness plans
can strengthen a child’s sense of
safety and security.
Listen to what a child is saying. If a
young child asks questions about the
event, answer them simply without
the elaboration needed for an older
child or adult. Children vary in the
amount of information they need
and can use. If a child has difﬁ culty expressing his or her thoughts
and feelings, then allowing them to draw a picture or tell a story of
what happened may help.
Parents and Caregivers Can Take the Following Actions:
! Encourage your children to talk and listen to their
! Calmly provide factual information about the disaster and
plans for insuring their ongoing safety.
! Involve your children in updating your family disaster plan
and disaster supplies kit (refer to pages 7-9)
! Practice your plan.
! Involve your children by giving them specific tasks to let
them know they can help restore family and community
! Spend extra time with your children.
! Re-establish daily routines for work, school, play, meals,
MONITOR AND LIMIT YOUR FAMILY’S EXPOSURE TO THE MEDIA
News coverage of the disaster can cause fear, confusion and anxiety
in children. This is particularly true for a large-scale disaster or
terrorist event, in which significant property damage and loss of life
has occurred. Especially for younger children, repeatedly watching
images of an event can
cause them to believe the
event is occurring again and
Parents and caregivers
should be available to
and provide explanations
when children are permitted
to watch television or use
the Internet if images or
news about the disaster are
Parents can also limit their
own exposure to anxiety-
Use Support Networks
Parents and caregivers can best help children when they understand
their own feelings and have developed ways of coping themselves.
One way of doing this is to build and use social support systems of
family, friends, community organizations, faith-based institutions
or other resources. In the event a disaster strikes, they can call on
these support systems to help them manage their reactions. In turn,
parents and caregivers are more available and better able to support
If a child continues to be very upset by what happened or if
reactions interfere with their school work or their relationships at
home or with their friends, it may be appropriate to talk with the
child’s primary care physician or a mental health provider who
specializes in children’s needs.
PREPARE YOUR FAMILY
Preparing for disaster helps everyone in the family accept the fact
that disasters do happen, and that they can do something about it.
Families should work together to identify and collect the resources
needed to meet basic needs during and after disaster. When people
feel prepared, they cope better.
Take the following actions with your family to get prepared:
! Call your local emergency management office or local
American Red Cross chapter and ask about the specific
hazards in your community and about your risk to those
hazards. Also learn about community response plans,
evacuation plans and routes, community warning systems,
and nearby buildings that are designated as disaster
! Learn about the emergency plans and procedures that exist
in places you and your family spend time. Priority locations
include places of employment, schools, and childcare centers.
Create a Family Disaster Plan
! Discuss with your family the hazards that could impact
your local area, the potential for community evacuation or
sheltering, and your community’s warning systems and what
to do if they are used.
! Determine where to meet in the event of an emergency.
Designate one location right outside your home in case of a
sudden emergency, like a fire, and another location outside
your neighborhood in case you can't return home.
! Ask an out-of-town friend or relative to be your emergency
contact. Following a disaster, family members should call
this person and tell them where they are.
! Make a communication plan where all family members
know how to contact each other. A form for recording
this information can be found at www.ready.gov
- or at www.redcross.org/contactcard.
! Include provisions for your pets in your family disaster plan.
! Practice the plan.
Once you have developed your plan, you need to practice and
maintain it. For example, ask questions to make sure your family
remembers meeting places, phone numbers, and safety rules.
Conduct routine fire and emergency evacuation drills, test fire
alarms, and replace and update disaster supplies.
Assemble a disaster supplies kit
Every household should assemble a disaster supplies kit and keep
in up to date. A disaster supplies kit can help your family stay safe
and be more comfortable during and after a disaster. Though local
officials and relief workers will be on the scene after a disaster,
they cannot reach everyone immediately. Also, if you need to
evacuate at a moment’s notice you probably will not have the
opportunity to shop or search for the supplies you and your family
! Pack disaster supplies in an easy-to-carry container, such as a
duffel bag or backpack and label the container clearly.
! Ask your children to think of items that they would like to
include in the kit, such as books, games or nonperishable
snack food items.
! Include such items as:
" Three-day supply of non-perishable food and manual can opener.
" Three-day supply of water (one gallon of water per person per
" Portable, battery-powered radio or television and extra
" Flashlights and extra batteries.
" First aid kit and first aid manual.
" Photocopies of credit cards and identification cards.
" Sanitation and hygiene items (hand sanitizer, moist towelettes
and toilet paper).
" Matches in a waterproof container.
" Clothing, blankets, kitchen accessories and cooking utensils.
" Special needs items, such as prescription medications, spare
eye-glasses, hearing aid batteries.
" Items for infants, such as formula, diapers, bottles and pacifiers.
" Tools, pet supplies, a map of the local area, and other items to
meet your unique family needs.
! Ask your children to help you remember to keep your kit
updated by marking dates on a calendar to regularly review
and update your kit.
! Consider having emergency supplies in each vehicle and at
your place of employment.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Community and
Family Preparedness Program and American Red Cross Community
Disaster Education are nationwide efforts to help people prepare for
disasters of all types.
For more information, please contact your local emergency management
office or American Red Cross chapter. This booklet and the
preparedness materials listed below are online at www.fema.gov and
www.redcross.org. Other preparedness materials are available at these
sites, as well as at www.ready.gov.
These publications are also available by calling FEMA at
1-800-480-2520, or writing:
P.O. Box 2012
Jessup, MD 20794-2012
Publications with an “A” number are available from your local
American Red Cross chapter.
! Are You Ready? An In-depth Guide to Citizen Preparedness (IS-22)
! Preparing for Disaster (FEMA 475) (A4600)
! Preparing for Disaster for People with Disabilities and other
Special Needs (FEMA 476) (A4497)
! Food and Water in an Emergency (FEMA 477) (A5055)
Local sponsorship provided by: