Helping Young Children After a Disaster

As we watch continuing coverage of the tsunami and related devastation in South Asia, it is important to remember that young children may be especially affected by disasters. Families and others who care for young children need to provide comfort, reassurance, and stability.

The most important thing families and other adults can do is make sure children aren't over-exposed to media coverage of the disaster. More than any other action, avoiding media coverage will protect children from confusing and disturbing images.

When young children witness troubling events, directly or on television, they are likely to feel afraid and confused. Images of destruction and suffering can cause high anxiety and even panic. Young children are most fearful when they do not understand what is happening around them. Their strong feelings and reactions are natural and should be expected.

Helping children deal with their reactions to the devastation can be challenging when adults are struggling with their own feelings. However, we should remember that young children are very perceptive and will quickly recognize and respond to the fear and anxiety that adults are experiencing.

The following strategies can help families and other adults give children emotional support and show them that they are safe in our care.

Offer reassurance through physical closeness.
Holding children brings comfort and a sense of security. Children may need extra hugs, smiles and hand-holding. If they seem worried, tell them they are safe and that there is someone there to take care of them. Hearing a family member or a teacher say, "I will take care of you," helps children feel safe. Young children have great faith in the competence of adults and respond to adult reassurances.

Maintain structure.
Children need consistency and security in their day, especially when the world around them seems confusing or unpredictable, or when adults are preoccupied or upset. Provide a framework that stays the same from day to day. Emphasize familiar routines at playtime, clean-up, naptime, meals, and bedtime. Make sure children get appropriate sleep, exercise, and nutrition. Children may find it difficult to accept routines and limits, but persevere by being firm, calm, and supportive. Make decisions for children when they cannot cope with choice.

Respond to children's interest in talking about the disaster.
Children gain a sense of control by talking about things that bother or confuse them. Talking with a supportive adult can help them clarify their feelings. At the same time, children should not be pressured to talk; let them set the pace for the conversation. In a calm, reassuring way, you can let children know that you too have feelings of concern and anxiety. You might share some of the ways you handle your feelings--spending time with family, taking a walk, listening to music, and so on. What children need most is to feel that the situation is under control.

Offer experiences that help children release tension.
Give worried children more time for relaxing, therapeutic experiences such as playing with sand, water, clay, and play dough.
Provide plenty of time and opportunities for children to work out their concerns and feelings through dramatic play. In dramatic play, children can pretend that they are big and strong to gain control over their trauma and to overcome feelings of helplessness.
Spend more time outdoors, at the gym, or in the park so children have opportunities for physical activity that provides an emotional release.

Watch for changes in behavior.
Some children reflect their increased stress and anxiety through specific changes in behavior, often reverting to earlier stages of development. Changes in behavior may indicate that a child is trying to understand and make sense of his anxiety and fear. For preschoolers, such symptoms can include thumbsucking, bedwetting, clinging, changes in sleep or eating patterns, and isolation from other children. Older children may be irritable or aggressive, and they might have difficulty concentrating at home and at school.

Take care of yourself.
Remember to take some time to deal with your own feelings and needs, so that you can continue to provide the comfort, reassurance, and stability that young children need.

NAEYC has several other resources on our Web site that may be helpful for families and others who work with young children:
Discussing the News with 3- to 7-Year-Olds: What to Do?
Helping Children Cope with Violence.
What Happened to the World: Helping Children Cope in Turbulent Times - a book and facilitator's guide available through our online catalog.
When Disaster Strikes: Helping Young Children Cope - a brochure available through our online catalog.

Additional helpful sites on the Web include:
American Academy of Pediatrics
Mr. Rogers/Family Communications, Inc.
National Association of School Psychologists

For further information or questions about helping young children after a disaster contact Alan Simpson at .

Ways You Can Help
There are many organizations organizing relief efforts for children and families who have been hurt by the recent tsunami in South Asia. Here are a few examples:
The Global Fund for Children
Save the Children
UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund

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