Disasters are upsetting experiences for everyone involved. The emotional toll that disaster brings can sometimes be even more devastating than the financial strains of damage and loss of home, business or personal property. Children, senior citizens, people with access or functional needs, and people for whom English is not their first language are especially at risk. Children may become afraid and some elderly people may seem disoriented at first. People with access or functional needs may require additional assistance.

When to Seek Crisis Counseling

Seek crisis counseling if you or someone in your family is experiencing issues with disaster-related stress.
  • Everyone who sees or experiences a disaster is affected by it in some way.
  • It is normal to feel anxious about your own safety and that of your family and close friends.
  • Profound sadness, grief and anger are normal reactions to an abnormal event.
  • Acknowledging your feelings helps you recover.
  • Focusing on your strengths and abilities helps you heal.
  • Accepting help from community programs and resources is healthy.
  • Everyone has different needs and different ways of coping.
  • It is common to want to strike back at people who have caused great pain.

Helping Youth Cope with Disasters

Children and older adults are of special concern in the aftermath of disasters. Even individuals who experience a disaster “second hand” through exposure to extensive media coverage can be affected. Children and youth have particular responses and as adults, it is important to recognize those reactions.
Here are common reactions in children, youth, and teens after a disaster or traumatic event.
Birth through 2 years. When children are pre-verbal and experience a trauma, they do not have the words to describe the event or their feelings. However, they can retain memories of particular sights, sounds, or smells. Infants may react to trauma by being irritable, crying more than usual, or wanting to be held and cuddled. The biggest influence on children of this age is how their parents cope. As children get older, their play may involve acting out elements of the traumatic event that occurred several years in the past and was seemingly forgotten.
Preschool: 3 through 6 years. Preschool children often feel helpless and powerless in the face of an overwhelming event. Because of their age and small size, they lack the ability to protect themselves or others. As a result, they feel intense fear and insecurity about being separated from caregivers. Preschoolers cannot grasp the concept of permanent loss. They can see consequences as being reversible or permanent. In the weeks following a traumatic event, preschoolers’ play activities may reenact the incident or the disaster over and over again.
School age: 7 through 10 years. The school-age child has the ability to understand the permanence of loss. Some children become intensely preoccupied with the details of a traumatic event and want to talk about it continually. This preoccupation can interfere with the child’s concentration at school and academic performance may decline. At school, children may hear inaccurate information from peers. They may display a wide range of reactions — sadness, generalized fear, or specific fears of the disaster happening again, guilt over action or inaction during the disaster, anger that the event was not prevented, or fantasies of playing rescuer.
Pre-adolescence to adolescence: 11 through 18 years. As children grow older, they develop a more sophisticated understanding of the disaster event. Their responses are more similar to adults. Teenagers may become involved in dangerous, risk-taking behaviors, such as reckless driving, or alcohol or drug use. Others can become fearful of leaving home and avoid previous levels of activities. Much of adolescence is focused on moving out into the world. After a trauma, the view of the world can seem more dangerous and unsafe. A teenager may feel overwhelmed by intense emotions and yet feel unable to discuss them with others.

Ways to Ease Stress

The following are ways to ease disaster-related stress:
  • Talk with someone about your feelings — anger, sorrow and other emotions — even though it may be difficult.
  • Seek help from professional counselors who deal with post-disaster stress.
  • Do not hold yourself responsible for the disastrous event or be frustrated because you feel you cannot help directly in the rescue work.
  • Take steps to promote your own physical and emotional healing by healthy eating, rest, exercise, relaxation and meditation.
  • Maintain a normal family and daily routine, limiting demanding responsibilities on yourself and your family.
  • Spend time with family and friends.
  • Participate in memorials.
  • Use existing support groups of family, friends and religious institutions.
For children, youth and teens, doing these positive actions can be comforting:
  • Personal contact is reassuring. Hug and touch your children.
  • Calmly provide factual information about the recent disaster and current plans for insuring their safety along with recovery plans.
  • Encourage your children to talk about their feelings.
  • Spend extra time with your children such as at bedtime.
  • Re-establish your daily routine for work, school, play, meals, and rest.
  • Involve your children by giving them specific chores to help them feel they are helping to restore family and community life.
  • Praise and recognize responsible behavior.
  • Understand that your children will have a range of reactions to disasters.
  • Encourage your children to help update your a family disaster plan.