Center for Safe and Secure Schools offers guidance in helping kids cope with disasters

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September 7, 2021 by HCDE-Texas

Following a disaster, it is as essential to guard children’s social and emotional health as their physical safety and security. The experience of a traumatic event such as a natural disaster can disrupt children’s lives and cause them to be unable to focus in school or struggle with other mundane parts of life.

“Students that experience a traumatic event appreciate and thrive under the conditions of routine, strong relationships, and empowerment,” said Center for Safe and Secure Schools Climate and Culture Specialist Cierra Nickerson.

Nickerson explains that, in the wake of a disaster, children benefit from:

  • Predictable, structured, consistent routines
  • Building strong relationships by practicing vulnerability as the adult (teacher or caregiver) and speaking and listening from the heart.
  • Empowering children’s agency by collaborating with children to problem-solve through challenges at home or in the classroom

Harris County Department of Education Head Start student hugs teacher.

Children react differently to life-altering events based on their developmental level and coping styles, but there are many ways to recognize disaster-related stress. Common reactions preschoolers may exhibit include crying more frequently, irritability, complaining often about stomachaches, or showing signs of separation anxiety. Elementary and middle school-aged kids are more capable of understanding the permanence of loss and may feel the need to talk about the event’s details continually. They may also feel sad, angry, or have irrational fears in addition to fear of the disaster happening again. Teenagers preparing to make their way into the world may be overwhelmed by the sudden notion that it is unsafe. Some teens may take part in dangerous, risk-taking behaviors such as reckless driving. Others might lose interest in activities they previously enjoyed, pull away from personal relationships, or become fearful of leaving home.

Recovery from a disaster occurs in phases. Immediately following the event, families should attend to everyone’s physical needs first. Seek medical attention if necessary, and make sure everyone has enough to eat and drink and as private a place to rest as possible. In the absence of a physical home, restoring daily routines can provide a much-needed sense of normality. Resume everyday activities such as taking walks or reading bedtime stories and provide additional comfort by expressing familiar affection, giving news of home, and discussing emotions related to the event.

The second, longer recovery phase involves two steps, says the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The first is assessing all the physical and emotional losses your family has experienced. From a logistics standpoint, this will aid your family in rebuilding the quantifiable damages incurred. The second is developing an emotional understanding of the disaster and relocation experience as part of the natural healing process. Help your children verbalize their feelings and find support in family members, friends, your place of worship, or other groups in your community.

As you work through this process with your children, follow these specific guidelines:

  • Encourage your children to talk and listen to their feelings. Let them know it is okay to ask questions and to feel the emotions they may experience. Ask them what they have heard and correct any misinformation.
  • Explain in simple direct language what has happened and what you expect to happen. Take cues from your children as to how much information to provide and understand that older children may seek, and benefit from, more details.
  • Limit media exposure, including television, radio, print, and social media. Focus instead on spending time together. If children are exposed to media, watch it with them and offer explanations to any questions.
  • Take care of yourself. Children depend on the adults around them for security and are more likely to react to their actions or emotional state than their words. Seek support systems through family, friends, or faith-based organizations to make sense of your own feelings.
  • Help your children help others to decrease your children’s sense of powerlessness in times of crisis. Have them write letters to others displaced by the event or involve them in updating your family’s emergency plan.
  • Look for signs that suggest your children need additional help. They may benefit from a healthcare professional if they have continual emotional outbursts, show serious problems at school, withdraw from family and friends, or cannot cope with routine issues and daily activities. Seeking help from others can offer solutions that may be unfamiliar to you.

For additional resources to help kids cope with disaster, visit Ready.gov, ReadyHarris.org, and AAP.org. Also, contact Cierra Nickerson at cnickerson@hcde-texas.org for guidance in helping children return to school following a crisis.

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