Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event A GUIDE FOR PARENTS, CAREGIVERS, AND TEACHERS
December 18th, 2012
by Katrina Brooke
“Adult support and reassurance is the key to helping children through a traumatic time”
Children and youth can face emotional strains after a traumatic event such as a car crash or violence.1 Disasters also may leave them with long-lasting harmful effects.2 When children experience a trauma, watch it on TV, or overhear others discussing it, they can feel scared, confused, or anxious. Young people react to trauma differently than adults. Some may react right away; others may show signs that they are having a difficult time much later. As such, adults do not always know when a child needs help coping. This tip sheet will help parents, caregivers, and teachers learn some common reactions, respond in a helpful way, and know when to seek support.
Possible Reactions to a Disaster
or Traumatic Event
Many of the reactions noted below are normal when children and youth are handling the stress right after an event. If any of these behaviors lasts for more than 2 to 4 weeks, or if they suddenly appear later on, these children may need more help coping. Information about where to find help is in the Helpful Resources section of this tip sheet.
PRESCHOOL CHILDREN, 0–5 YEARS OLD
Very young children may go back to thumb sucking or wetting the bed at night after a trauma. They may fear strangers, darkness, or monsters. It is fairly common for preschool children to become clingy with a parent, caregiver, or teacher or to want to stay in a place where they feel safe. They may express the trauma repeatedly in their play or tell exaggerated stories about what happened. Some children’s eating and sleeping habits may change. They also may have aches and pains that cannot be explained. Other symptoms to watch for are aggressive or withdrawn behavior, hyperactivity, speech difficulties, and disobedience.
Infants and Toddlers, 0–2 years old, cannot understand that a trauma is happening, but they know when their caregiver is upset. They may start to show the same emotions as their caregivers, or they may act differently, like crying for no reason or withdrawing from people and not playing with their toys.
Children, 3–5 years old, can understand the effects of trauma. They may have trouble adjusting to change and loss. They may depend on the adults around them to help them feel better.
How Parents, Caregivers, and Teachers Can Support Children’s Recovery
The good news is that children and youth are usually quite resilient. Most of the time they get back to feeling ok soon after a trauma. With the right support from the adults around them, they can thrive and recover. The most important ways to help are to make sure children feel connected, cared about, and loved.
Parents, teachers, and other caregivers can help children express their emotions through conversation, writing, drawing, and singing.
Most children want to talk about a trauma, so let them. Accept their feelings and tell them it is ok to feel sad, upset, or stressed.
Crying is often a way to relieve stress and grief. Pay attention and be a good listener.
Ask your teen and youth you are caring for what they know about the event. What are they hearing in school or seeing on TV? Try to watch news coverage on TV or the Internet with them. And, limit access so they have time away from reminders about the trauma. Don’t let talking about the trauma take over the family or classroom discussion for long periods of time. Allow them to ask questions.
Adults can help children and youth see the good that can come out of a trauma. Heroic actions, families and friends who help, and support from people in the community are examples.
Children may better cope with a trauma or disaster by helping others. They can write caring letters to those who have
been hurt or have lost their homes; they can send thank you notes to people who helped. Encourage these kinds of activities.
If human violence or error caused an event, be careful not to blame a cultural, racial, or ethnic group, or persons with psychiatric disabilities. This may be a good opportunity to talk with children about discrimination and diversity. Let children know that they are not to blame when bad things happen.
It’s okay for children and youth to see adults sad or crying, but try not to show intense emotions. Screaming and hitting or kicking furniture or walls can be scary for children. Violence can further frighten children or lead to more trauma.
Adults can show children and youth how to take care of themselves. If you are in good physical and emotional
health, you are more likely to be readily available to support the children you care about. Model self-care,
set routines, eat healthy meals, get enough sleep,
exercise, and take deep breaths to handle stress.
Tips for Talking With Children and Youth of Different Age Groups After a Disaster or Traumatic Event
PRESCHOOL CHILDREN, 0–5 YEARS OLD
Give these very young children a lot of cuddling and verbal support.
Take a deep breath before holding or picking them up and focus on them, not the trauma.
Get down to their eye level and speak in a calm, gentle voice using words they can understand.
Tell them that you still care for them and will continue to take care of them so they feel safe.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Administration’s Disaster Technical Assistance
Center (SAMHSA DTAC)
Toll Free: 1-800-308-3515
Web Site: http://www.samhsa.gov/dtac
Mental Health Services Locator
Toll-Free: 1–800–789–2647 (English and Español);
Web Site: http://store.samhsa.gov/mhlocator
Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator
Toll-Free: 1–800–662–HELP (1–800–662–4357)
(24/7 English and Español); TDD: 1–866–487–4889
Web Site: http://www.findtreatment.samhsa.gov
Disaster Distress Helpline
Toll-Free: 1-800-985-5990 Text ‘TalkWithUs’ to 66746
Web Site: http://www.disasterdistress.samhsa.gov
Child Welfare Information Gateway
Toll-Free: 1–800–4–A–CHILD (1–800–422–4453)
Web Site: http://www.childwelfare.gov/responding/how.cfm
Resources Addressing Children’s Needs
Administration for Children and Families
Web Site: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/
Additional Behavioral Health Resources
These behavioral health resources can be accessed
by Clicking through to the SAMHSA website and then
clicking on the related link.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Toll-Free: 1–800–273–TALK (1–800–273–8255);
TTY: 1–800–799–4TTY (1–800–799–4889)
Web Site: http://www.samhsa.gov
National Child Traumatic Stress Network
Web Site: http://www.samhsa.gov/traumaJustice/
When Children, Youth and Parents, Caregivers, or Teachers Need More Help
In some instances, a child and their family may
have trouble getting past a trauma. Parents or
caregivers may be afraid to leave a child alone.
Teachers may see that a student is upset or
seems different. It may be helpful for everyone
to work together. Consider talking with a mental
health professional to help identify the areas of
difficulty. Together, everyone can decide how
to help and learn from each other. If a child
has lost a loved one, consider working with
someone who knows how to support children
who are grieving.4 Find a caring professional in
the Helpful Resources section of this tip sheet.
1 National Center for Statistics and Analysis. (n.d.). Traffic safety facts,
2003 data: Children. (DOT HS 809 762). Washington, DC: National
Highway Traffic Safety Administration. From http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.
gov/Pubs/809762.pdf (accessed April 20, 2012).
2,4 National Commission on Children and Disasters. (2010). National
Commission on Children and Disasters: 2010 report to the President
and Congress. AHRQ Publication No. 10-MO37. Rockville, MD:
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. From http://archive.
ahrq.gov/prep/nccdreport/nccdreport.pdf (accessed April 20, 2012).
3 Children’s Bureau. (2010). Child maltreatment 2009. Washington,
DC: Administration on Children, Youth and Families; Administration
for Children and Families; U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services. From http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/stats_research/
index.htm#can (accessed April 20, 2012).
Toll-Free: 1-877-SAMHSA-7 (1-877-726-4727) | Info@samhsa.hhs.gov | http://store.samhsa.gov