Supporting Children in the Face of Disaster or Trauma

By Tracey L. Hurd, Ph.D.

Tragedy calls and challenges us as people of faith. How can we make our children feel safe when we ourselves are deeply shaken? We simply do the best we can. We take small steps.

Adults' first priority must be to try to reduce children's fears and anxiety. Keep the family together, even when searching for assistance. The loss of routines and rhythms is disconcerting for children. They will be concerned that they could lose you, as well. Encourage children to ask questions, talk, and express their feelings. Be calm and straightforward in your responses. It's okay to tell children that there are some things you are still figuring out. Reassure them of your love. Affirm your commitment to getting family life back to normal.

A two- to three-hour workshop produced by the Unitarian Universalist Association guides multigenerational reflection and response, in the event disaster touches your community. Together in Faith(Word) (PDF): Finding Home in Times of Trauma or Disaster engages participants of all ages in partnership with others as they look compassionately and directly at the experience of loss and its meaning for them.

To help kids cope with disaster:

  • Limit exposure to media coverage. Television reports of a disaster or trauma can be overwhelming and sensational. Young children may find reports confusing; they may literally think the events they see are happening over and over again. Seeing repeated images can desensitize or re-traumatize children. Older children and adults can also be harmed by overexposure to television images and commentary.
  • Listen carefully to children. When children ask questions, be sure to first understand what is leading to their questions. Children may not fully understand what has happened. They are often centered on their own experience. Be honest, while striving to meet children at their level. Encourage them to ask questions and share feelings.
  • Spend time with children. When daily life is disrupted, being near family members and loved ones becomes even more important to children. Physical closeness and affection can be very reassuring. Do not be concerned about “clinging” behaviors during times of disaster or trauma—being close is an adaptive behavior.
  • Provide reassurance. Children can be very egocentric. They may feel they are somehow the cause of events far beyond themselves. Reassure children that you love them and care about them. Let them know that you understand their fears and concerns.
  • Try to keep regular schedules. Children find the rhythms of daily life comforting. Try to keep eating, playing, and bedtime routines predictable. This will be comforting to children and help them gain a sense of “home” even if they are no longer at home.
  • Provide play experiences that relieve tension. Children and youth are active. They need ways of channeling energy and expressing themselves. Provide activities such as drawing that allow them to express feelings without words. Provide active children with time to run around and be physically busy.
  • Be a model to children. Children watch adults—they notice how they react and respond. Children learn about how to deal with situations by seeing what adults do. Calmly negotiating challenges signals to children that the situation is tenable. Explain your feelings calmly, and at a level appropriate for the age of the child. Assure children that you have faith in the future.
  • Allow children to help. Helping others allows children to feel valued and useful. Provide safe opportunities for children to volunteer. If they are not directly involved in the trauma or disaster, then help them contribute to their local communities. Remind them that while we can not help directly with everything, we can help to create fairness and justice in our own communities.
  • Seek community. Faith communities can offer trust and care in the context of mutuality. Sustained involvement in faith communities provides children with another caring network that offers support. It can be helpful and comforting for children to see the adults they love supported and cared for, as well.
  • Seek professional help when needed. If children have serious emotional outbursts, difficulty at school, preoccupation with the trauma and disaster or other behaviors that are troubling, seek help from a mental health professional. It's perfectly normal—for children or adults—to need help in recovering from circumstances that shake the foundation daily life.