1. After a Disaster: How to Help Child Victims
  2. Disaster Resource List


Children who experience an initial traumatic event before they are 11 years old are three times more likely to develop psychological symptoms than those who experience their first trauma as a teenager or later. But children are able to cope better with a traumatic event if parents, friends, family, teachers and other adults support and help them with their experiences. Help should start as soon as possible after the event.

It's important to remember that some children may never show distress because they don't feel upset, while others may not give evidence of being upset for several weeks or even months. Other children may not show a change in behavior, but may still need your help.

Children may exhibit these behaviors after a disaster:

  1. Be upset over the loss of a favorite toy, blanket, teddy bear or other times that adults might consider insignificant, but which are important to the child.

  2. Change from being quiet, obedient and caring to loud, noisy and aggressive or may change from being outgoing to shy and afraid.

  3. Develop nighttime fears. They may be afraid to sleep alone at night, with the light off, to sleep in their own room, or have nightmares or bad dreams.

  4. Be afraid the event will reoccur.

  5. Become easily upset, crying and whining.

  6. Lose trust in adults. After all, their adults were not able to control the disaster.

  7. Revert to younger behavior such as bed wetting and thumb sucking.

  8. Not want parents out of their sight and refuse to go to school or childcare.

  9. Feel guilty that they caused the disaster because of something they had said or done.

  10. Become afraid of wind, rain or sudden loud noises.

  11. Have symptoms of illness, such as headaches, vomiting or fever.

  12. Worry about where they and their family will live.

Things Parents or Other Caring Adults Can Do

  1. Talk with the children about how they are feeling and listen without judgment. Let them know they can have own feelings, which might be different than others. It's OK.

  2. Let the children take their time to figure things out and to have their feelings. Don't rush them or pretend that they don't think or feel as they do.

  3. Help them learn to use words that express their feelings, such as happy, sad, angry, mad and scared. Just be sure the words fit their feelings - not yours.

  4. Assure fearful children that you will be there to take care of them. Reassure them many times.

  5. Stay together as a family as much as possible.

  6. Go back as soon as possible to former routines or develop new ones. Maintain a regular schedule for the children.

  7. Reassure the children that the disaster was not their fault in any way.

  8. Let them have some control, such as choosing what outfit to wear or what meal to have for dinner.

  9. Help your children know that others love them and care about them by visiting, talking on the phone or writing to family members, friends and neighbors.

  10. Encourage the children to give or send pictures they have drawn or things they have written.

  11. Re-establish contact with extended family members.

  12. Help your children learn to trust adults again by keeping promises, including children in planning routines and outings.

  13. Help your children regain faith in the future by helping them develop plans for activities that will take place later - next week, next month.

  14. Children cope better when they are healthy, so be sure your children get needed healthcare as soon as possible.

  15. Make sure the children are getting balanced meals and eating enough food and getting enough rest.

  16. Remember to take care of yourself so you can take care of your children.

  17. Spend extra time with your children at bedtime. Read stories, rub their backs, listen to music, talk quietly about the day.

  18. If you will be away for a time, tell them where you are going and make sure you return or call at the time you say you will.

  19. Allow special privileges such as leaving the light on when they sleep for a period of time after the disaster.

  20. Limit their exposure to additional trauma, including news reports.

  21. Children should not be expected to be brave or tough, or to "not cry."

  22. Don't be afraid to "spoil" children in this period after a disaster.

  23. Don't give children more information than they can handle about the disaster.

  24. Don't minimize the event.

  25. Find ways to emphasize to the children that you love them.

  26. Allow the children to grieve losses.

  27. Develop positive anniversary activities to commemorate the event. These events may bring tears, but they are also a time to celebrate survival and the ability to get back to a normal life.

Activities for Children

  1. Encourage the children to draw or paint pictures of how they feel about their experiences. Hang these at the child's level to be seen easily. (These may also be posted on the FEMA for Kids Web site.

  2. Write a story of the frightening event. You might start with: Once upon a time there was a terrible ___________ and it scared us all ____________. This is what happened: __________. Be sure to end with "And we are now safe."

  3. Playing with playdough or clay is good for children to release tension and make symbolic creations.

  4. Music is fun and valuable for children. Creating music with instruments or rhythm toys helps relieve stress and tension.

  5. Provide the children with clothes, shoes, hats, etc. so they can play "dress up" and can pretend to be adults in charge of recovering from the disaster and "being in charge."

  6. Make puppets with the children and put on a puppet show for family and friends, or help children put on a skit about what they experienced.

  7. Read stories about disasters to and with children.
This information is provided by Beryl Cheal, an educator with
Disaster Training International
P.O. Box 30144
Seattle, WA 98103
(206) 781-0701


After the Disaster: A Children’s Mental Health Checklist

Disasters can be particularly traumatic to children. Sometimes, it can be difficult to determine the extent of the psychological trauma, and whether or not professional mental health services are indicated. This checklist is one way to assess a child’s mental health status.

Add up the pluses and minuses to obtain a final score. If the child scores more than 35, it is suggested you seek a mental health consultation.

  1. Has the child had more than one major stress within a year BEFORE this disaster, such as a death in the family, a molestation, a major physical illness or divorce? If yes: +5

  2. Does the child have a network of supportive, caring persons who continue to relate to him daily? If yes: -10

  3. Has the child had to move out of his house because of the disaster? If yes: +5

  4. Was there reliable housing within one week of the earthquake with resumption of the usual household members living together? If yes: -10

  5. Is the child showing severe disobedience or delinquency? If yes: +5

    Is the child showing any of the following as NEW behaviors for more than three weeks after the disaster?

  6. Nightly states of terror? +5

  7. Waking from dreams confused or in a sweat? +5

  8. Difficulty concentrating? +5

  9. Extreme irritability? +5

  10. Loss of previous achievements in toilet or speech? +5

  11. Onset of stuttering or lisping? +5

  12. Persistent severe anxiety or phobias? +5

  13. Obstinacy? +5

  14. New or exaggerated fears? +5

  15. Rituals or compulsions? +5

  16. Severe clinging to adults? +5

  17. Inability to fall asleep or stay asleep? +5

  18. Startling at any reminder of the disaster? +5

  19. Loss of ambition for the future? +5

  20. Loss of pleasure in usual activities? +5

  21. Loss of curiosity? +5

  22. Persistent sadness or crying? +5

  23. Persistent headaches or stomach aches? +5

  24. Hypochondria? +5

  25. Has anyone in the child’s immediate family been killed or severely injured in the disaster (including severe injury to the child)? +15

Note: Preoccupation with death, unusual accident proneness or suicidal threats are reasons for immediate consultations. It is also recommended that any child who has been seriously injured or who has lost a parent, sibling or caregiver by death, have a psychological evaluation and/or brief therapy.

Note: This checklist was developed under the auspices of Project COPE, a federal funded (FEMA) crisis counseling program activated in Santa Cruz, California, in response to the October 17, 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. The project provided individual, family and group counseling, agency debriefing services and a school intervention program. Over the course of 16 months, the project provided services to more than 25,000 individuals. Peter J. Spofford, M.S. served as Project COPE Director.

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