Helping your child after a natural disaster

November 19, 2012 in Best of Both, disaster assistance, Emotions, Hurricane Sandy, Kids, Resources by MyBestofBothWorlds

Helping your child after a natural disaster was written by Molly W. Blancke, Executive Director of  the Lutheran Counseling Center.  When I spoke with Ms. Blancke, she graciously provided her permission for me to post her information on My Best of Both Worlds as we discussed the importance of making resources available to as many people as possible.  Click here and here for earlier blog posts that listed available resources for those affected by Hurricane Sandy.

For parents who have suffered losses and displacement in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, worrying about their child’s emotional well-being as a result of the family’s disaster experiences is a real concern. A determination to recover and to return to a normal lifestyle can often mitigate the initial, intense feelings of sadness and grief that may be felt by victims of a natural disaster. In some ways, the parents’ recovery may be an easier one than that of their children because it is the adults’ responsibility to take action to re-acquire basic needs and rebuild—steps that often help to psychologically work through emotional losses, giving hope for the future.

Children are greatly affected by the responses of the adults that are closest to them. If parents don’t discuss the family’s losses and disappointments, children will assume that it is not good for them to discuss their negative feelings either. Parents often wrongly assume that by shielding their children from negative feelings, their kids will “get over” the disaster more quickly and return to normal. In reality, children need to be allowed to discuss their feelings openly, even if those feelings make parents uncomfortable, in order to process the events and adjust to them. The following is a guide of possible reactions that may be exhibited by children immediately following disaster experiences (from the National Association of School Psychologists, 2003):

  • Preschoolers: thumb-sucking, bedwetting, clinging to parents, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, fear of the dark, regression in behavior, withdrawal from friends and routines
  • Elementary School Children: irritability, aggressiveness, clinginess, nightmares, school avoidance, poor concentration, withdrawal from activities and friends
  • Adolescents: sleeping and eating disturbances, agitation, increase in conflicts, physical complaints, delinquent behavior, poor concentration

Reactions will vary depending on the intensity and severity of the losses incurred and may be more severe for the child who has had previous traumas.  If any of the above reactions last for an extended period of time, you should seek professional counseling for your child. Parents can best help their child in the immediate aftermath of the storm by doing the following things:

  • Remain calm and reassure your child. Acknowledge the destruction and losses but emphasize the community’s ability to help with needs and rebuild. Reassure her that she will be taken care of.
  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Be an empathic listener; allow your child to ask questions and express her feelings.  Let your child know that her feelings are normal.
  • Encourage your child to talk about disaster related events. For young children who may not be able to express themselves verbally, use play to encourage expression of feelings as in drawing pictures or playing with dolls, encouraging her to elaborate on pictures and play behaviors.
  • Give your child activities that will help promote positive coping and problem-solving strategies to help manage her anxiety; include chores she can do to help the family rebuild.
  • Emphasize your child’s resiliency. Be aware of your child’s strengths and give her ways to use them. Tell her about other communities who have experienced similar disasters and recovered.
  • Strengthen your child’s interaction with friends. Children with strong emotional support from peers are often better able to cope with stress.  If friendships are disrupted because of family relocations or if parents are overwhelmed and don’t have as much quality time, seek peer groups for your child. If possible, find a way to reconnect your child to old friends and encourage new ones.
  • Be sensitive to the problems your child is experiencing as a result of relocation; show empathy.

Lutheran Counseling Center (LCC) is here to help you, your child, or anyone you know who may need counseling support as a result of losses incurred from Hurricane Sandy. We have eight church-based counseling sites (see areas listed above) and are open to sending counselors to other areas of great loss. Please contact LCC at 516-741-0994 or 1-800-317-1173 or e-mail us at for more information or to set an appointment at any site.   Visit our website at