Helping Children Deal with Crisis

Diane Sasser, Hebert, Lanette G., Fox, Janet E.  |  9/9/2005 9:54:24 PM

Dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters such as hurricanes or man-made disasters such as terrorism or war is difficult enough for all to comprehend. The lives of all have been changed forever. It is incredibly more difficult for young people and children, particularly if they are somehow involved and are the victims. Children are affected in so many ways. Many families struggle to put their lives back together after devastation.

In the case of families who were victims of hurricanes:

  • Some children and families were displaced or fled the destruction but do not have a home or jobs to which to return for some reason or another.
  • Children across the state are being affected by the economic outcomes of the hurricanes.
  • Nothing is the same as it was before the disasters.

In the case of families whose loved ones are at war or who were lost in battle:

  •  It is difficult to comprehend why actions so far away have affected them so dramatically.
  •  Families experience ambiguous loss because their loved one is away and they are unsure when he or she will return. 

Children and families who have first-hand experience of a disaster.

The impact is most immediate and dire for this group. Many lost their homes, family members and friends. Life as they knew it no longer exists.

These children have witnessed terrible events, possibly seeing death and violence, and watched the anger, frustration and desperation of the adults around them. Some of the children may have been separated from their parents or other loved ones. These events result in serious emotional needs that may not be met.

The first priority for these children is clearly to get assistance at meeting their basic needs. As much as possible, these children should be protected from the physical and psychological dangers around them, but parents will need help in accomplishing that goal. The environment must make it possible for parents to provide the basic necessities for their children. Only after that occurs will parents be able to help the children deal with the stress and trauma.

Displaced children and families.

Although they may have escaped the worst of the destruction, families are dealing with major losses in their lives. They may have lost their homes and other belongings. They certainly have lost their familiar routines and location. Children may not be attending school, or they may be attending a new school—an event for which they had no preparation.

A difficulty in supporting these children is that their parents are traumatized and struggling. They have also been uprooted and have experienced major losses. The parents may feel guilt and frustration at not being able to provide everything their children need.

Children concerned about family or friends in the area of a disaster and others watching from a distance.

Children who have friends and family working in the region of disasters may be concerned about their welfare. It is difficult for children (and for some adults) to know how close their loved ones may be to the places being shown on TV. The media images of chaos and pain make them worry whether their friends and family members are safe and secure. In some cases, they may not know when they will be able to talk with or see their loved ones.

Reports provide a significant amount of information and speculation about how battles are being fought on the other side of the globe in places most American families have never been. It is difficult to fathom what loved ones are experiencing in and around the fighting. Parents or caregivers should explain as best they can what they know about what is going on during the war. They should reassure children that their loved ones are doing what they feel is right and will take every possible precaution to remain safe. Children should be prevented from watching too much TV and overexposure to traumatic situations.

Children experiencing the loss of a loved one.

After a disaster, everyone goes through the stages of grief. They don’t necessarily go through each stage only once and may not go through them in the order specified. Also, not all people move through the stages with the same intensity of emotions or at the same rate.

Understanding what they are feeling can help them to begin to cope. Grief is human and inescapable. Understanding the stages of grief, giving into them and going through them are critical to getting past the disaster and moving forward. The stages of grief are:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Denial: "No, not me, it can't be true." This is a typical reaction when a person faces a loss. This stage functions as a buffer after the unexpected happens. It allows you to collect yourself and, in time, to find a way to cope.

Anger: "Why me?" When the first stage of denial passes, it is likely to be replaced by anger, rage, envy and resentment. God is often a target for anger, especially in natural disasters. You may also resent people around you who didn't suffer as much loss as you did.

Bargaining: "Yes, me, but...." Once you have gotten the anger under control, you may enter the bargaining stage. You may promise God that you'll be good or that you'll do something in exchange for what you need. Bargaining can be a positive way to deal with stress. Whether you bargain with God, with yourself or with your family, it provides comfort for things you cannot control. It allows you to "frame" the crisis so you can manage it. Bargaining may help you cope with feelings of sadness without experiencing deep depression. Good bargaining skills allow people to see the bright side of even the most difficult situation.

Depression: "There is no hope." A crisis entails loss, which is followed by sadness. If you are absorbed by the sadness, you can become depressed. Signs of depression include: changes in usual eating or sleeping patterns, constant moodiness or irritability, lack of energy, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

Acceptance: "It's all right now." Once the preceding stages have been completely worked through, you will finally be able to accept what has happened, and you may even be stronger than you were before the disaster.

People who survive crises well have common characteristics:

  • They have people who stand by them, support them and give them a sense of hope.
  • They understand the magnitude of what they have lost.
  • They learn to forgive themselves for their mistakes and for surviving.
  • They learn to accept their own good qualities.
  • They have given themselves a reason to live.

Traumatic events extend well beyond the daily stress people experience. Therefore, it’s important to understand the variety of circumstances different individuals are finding themselves in. It’s critical to note how the different levels affect people who are going through them. In addition, helping support people as they go through the stress and trauma will positively influence their recovery and healing process.


Coping with Loss after a Disaster, Communication and Educational Technology Services, University of Minnesota Extension Service, Retrieved September 4, 2005

Myers-Walls, J. A. (2005). Children as Victims of Hurricane Katrina, Purdue University.

Adapted and made available by:

Diane D. Sasser, Ph. D., Associate Professor, Family Development; Janet Fox, Ph. D., Associate Professor, Volunteer Development and Leadership; and Lanette Hebert, 4-H Coordinator, Southwest and Central Regions.

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