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How to Counsel Kids after a Disaster

When school counselor Mindy Willard would hear tornado warnings as a child growing up in Indiana, she’d want to be with her grandparents. “That was my safe place,” she says.

Children and the elderly are among the most resilient after a disaster, according to many experts. “This may be because older people have experienced more and their attitude is ‘been there done that,’” says Willard, who is an Arizona school counselor for grades K-8. “They have a better sense of hope that things will get better again.”

Children take their cues from their parents and caretakers when it comes to how they react in the aftermath of a disaster. “When adults are more resilient, kids are too,” says Willard. “The sooner a regular routine is established, the better, but that is not always easy, especially when a family has been displaced. That’s why it’s good to bring in a support network if possible – grandparents, neighbors, friends.”

Even children who are not directly affected by a disaster can have fears. Some worry that the incident will happen again and something bad will happen to them, or someone they know. When this happens, counselors recommend emphasizing their safety. For instance, after a hurricane, Willard advises adults to tell children: “It’s over and everyone is safe now. Everyone came together and helped. People are sad now, but things will get better.”

In Willard’s school district, after a traumatic event, she and her fellow counselors will meet with small groups of students. These children attend voluntarily. Says Willard: “You should never force a child to talk to someone, especially someone they don’t know, if they don’t want to.”

Frequently, what happens in these groups is that children realize they’re not the only ones having fears and it’s a big relief to them.

Other kids may not have the words to express what they’re feeling. In these cases, counselors recommend encouraging them to label their emotions about loss, whether it be people, pets or toys.

“Help them express that they are ‘sad,’ or ‘angry,’” says psychologist Monica Indart, who teaches training classes for crisis counselors. “Also, give children frequent verbal reassurances and comfort and try to avoid unnecessary separation. If a child wants to sleep in the parents’ room, it’s a good idea to allow it temporarily.”

Clinging to parents and familiar adults is one of the signs that children are suffering from stress.

Other symptoms include:

  • Increased helplessness and passivity
  • Fears of the dark
  • Increased crying
  • Poor concentration
  • Preoccupation with the disaster
  • Younger children may return to earlier behavior patterns, such as bedwetting, sleep problems and separation anxiety.
  • Older children may display anger, aggression, school problems or withdrawal.

Suggestions to help reassure children:

  • Personal contact, such as a hug or other reassuring touches.
  • Listen to what the child is saying. If a young child is asking questions about the event, answer them simply without the elaboration needed for an older child or adult. Some children are comforted by knowing more or less information than others; decide what level of information your particular child needs. For older children, calmly provide factual information.
  • Encourage children to talk about their feelings. If children have difficulty expressing feelings, encourage them to draw a picture or tell a story of what happened, perhaps make a card for someone affected by the disaster.
  • Spend extra time with your children, perhaps at bedtime.
  • Reestablish the daily routine as soon as possible.
  • Praise and recognize responsible behavior.
  • Limit media exposure. This is particularly true for large-scale disasters or a terrorist event where significant property damage and loss of life has occurred. Particularly for younger children, repeated images of an event may cause them to believe the event is recurring over and over.
  • Involve children in restoring family and community life by giving them specific chores to help, and encourage your children to help create or update a family disaster plan.

The good news is that most children are very resilient and will bounce back quickly once things return to normal. But Willard reminds parents: “While children can be very resilient, they may still experience grief.  We have to allow children to grieve in their own way and on their own time and not force anything. We just need to be aware that they grieve differently than we do.”

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Last Updated: 
07/08/2017 - 10:22