Focus on Pediatrics: To help children cope with disaster, address fears

Answer questions through crafts and playtime

Every day, children across America are impacted by traumatic experiences. Sometimes it is a natural disaster such as a hurricane, and other times it is the death of a classmate. Events such as the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City had an effect on almost every child in the country as their family watched events unfold on television.

With traumatic events so prevalent, it is important for parents to learn what they need to do to help their children cope when disaster strikes.

During the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in Florida, Beth White, CCLS, child life coordinator at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, learned that adults need to sit down and find out what is frightening their children. They need to determine what questions each child has so they can provide answers.

When children worry about their safety, parents can go over the steps that are being taken to keep them safe. It also helps to let the child participate by giving them something concrete to do. For example to prepare for a hurricane, families gather supplies such as canned foods, extra batteries, and bottled water.

Parents should tell children that these traumatic events are not normal and they don’t happen every day, but steps are being taken to make sure they are safe, says White. 

If parents are feeling anxious and fearful following a disaster they need to talk with other adults and parents to address their needs so that they are able to help their child. There is nothing wrong with crying in front of children, but they need to know that they are not the cause for the grief, says White. Children might suppress their feelings, fearful that if they talk about the incident, they will make Mom and Dad more upset.

"It is important that parents and caregivers let their children know that their feelings are normal, and one of the ways they can do that is by finding out what their children are feeling," says White.

Small children often express themselves through play; therefore, adults can observe playtime to see if children are including the disaster in their play.

When adults don’t take the time to seek out those opportunities to discuss traumatic experiences, children might repress their feelings. Regressive behavior that naturally occurs for a short period of time, such as thumb sucking, might be prolonged as a result.

"If adults don’t talk to a child, a child’s misconceptions can be worse than what reality is," says White. A child has little experience and limited knowledge to assess the situation on his or her own. An adult can provide children an opportunity to process the information so they understand what happened and what they can do to be safe or feel better, she says.

Not all talk without action

In addition to providing opportunities for discussion, parents can initiate arts and crafts activities that help children express their fears and feelings about an incident. For example, children can make a safety shield that is divided into four sections. On one section, write, "Things that make me safe" on the second section, write, "Things that make me scared" on the third section, write, "Things that make me happy" and on the fourth section, write, "These are the questions I have." The children can fill in each section.

The shield is a great way for children to process what they are feeling and for adults to assess what they need to talk about, says White.

Another good craft is a feelings garden, which consists of flowers made out of Popsicle sticks. The children glue the sticks together to form petals and in the middle write something what scares them. On the petals they write things they do when they feel scared.

Older children liked creating the American flag after 9/11, says White. On the stripes they wrote the story of what had occurred on that date and on the stars they wrote something they wished. For example, one teen wrote, "I wish planes didn’t fly into buildings."

"The flag gave them a chance to see that they were not the only one feeling that way. Their brother or friend had the same feelings and they were normal," says White.

Sometimes the steps parents take to help their children cope do not work effectively. They find that the reactions to the incident that were normal in the beginning have become prolonged.

For example, while it is normal for a child not to want to return to school the first couple days or even a couple weeks after a disaster, if a child still is uncomfortable going to school after that time period parents should consider seeking professional counseling. 


For more information about helping children cope following a traumatic incident, contact:

Beth White, CCLS, Child Life Coordinator, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Telephone: (404) 315-2458. E-mail: