Coping with a natural disaster

Coping with a natural disaster

Following a traumatic event, it is normal for children, teenagers and adults to have strong feelings, reactions, and changes in behaviour. Children learn from their parents’ responses, as well as what they see and hear in the media

Key points to remember

  • following a traumatic event, it is normal for children, teenagers and adults to have strong feelings, reactions, and changes in behaviour
  • children learn from their parents' responses, as well as what they see and hear in the media
  • limit the amount of information that your child has access to while still providing them with accurate information, suitable for their age
  • allow for family time and try to keep as many routines in place as possible, to provide a sense of safety and security

Traumatic events

Traumatic events, including natural disasters, are distressing. Strong reactions immediately after the event are very common. Fear, sadness, guilt and anger are all common emotions felt by children, teenagers, and adults. People start to question their own beliefs, particularly about their safety, sense of control over their life, and how predictable the world really is.

It is important to realise that the impact of a natural disaster can be far-reaching, even for children who were not at the site of the disaster. Children can be affected by other people’s responses and what they see or hear about through media and conversation.

The age of a child will have an impact on how they respond to a traumatic situation and also what they need to help them to get through it. The older the child, the more “in-tune” they will be with their emotions and the better their ability to put feelings into words. There can be a delay between the trauma and the response. It’s important to remember that your child’s behaviour may be a response to a distressing experience.

Common responses to traumatic events

When children have faced a traumatic event they may experience a number of emotional and behavioural responses including:

  • engaging in repetitive play that re-enacts the trauma
  • having dreams or nightmares of the event
  • having dreams or nightmares about themselves or significant others being in danger
  • becoming preoccupied with other traumatic events
  • becoming very distressed when faced with reminders about the event
  • withdrawing from people and wanting to be alone
  • losing interest in activities that they usually enjoy
  • being alert, tense, and on-edge
  • having difficulties with sleeping
  • experiencing aches and pains – especially stomach aches and headaches
  • bedwetting
  • having difficulty concentrating and paying attention
  • being clingy and overly dependent on others
  • becoming distressed or fearful if separated from loved ones
  • behaving younger than they are or being generally irritable and acting out
  • being angry and verbally or physically aggressive
  • having difficulty seeing any future for themselves or loved ones

How can parents and adults help?

The response of the adults around children is very important and influences how children cope with a traumatic event. It is important to be aware of your own responses and emotional needs so that you can look after your children. Some strategies to help children include:

  • talking about what is happening and how everyone is feeling about it. Let them know that their responses are natural and normal for the situation
  • being honest about the experience. Children’s imagination and the fear of the unknown can be more overwhelming for children than the reality. Don’t focus on the gruesome or tragic aspects of the experience. Talk about the services and people who are helping to make things better. If you do not have answers, then that is okay to tell them that
  • controlling how much access your child has to the media. Your child's age will affect how they can interpret the material that they see and hear
  • being prepared to answer the same question over and over again. This is their way of making sense of the situation
  • reassuring your child that they are loved, safe (in whatever realistic or truthful way they are), and cared for
  • sticking to routines, including meal times and bed times as much as possible. This gives a sense of safety and security
  • trying to do family based activities - this will make children feel like they are part of a unit and provide a sense of connectedness or togetherness
  • keeping each family member's role clear – don't expect or allow children to take on too much responsibility
  • trying to give each child special attention
  • making sure that everyone is eating and sleeping
  • providing comfort when a child is distressed
  • encouraging your child to take action. This can help with the sense of helplessness that can be experienced. This could include writing cards or drawing pictures to send to rescue agencies or families who have been affected

Looking after yourself

As an adult it is very important that you look after yourself as well. This is often easier said than done, because your focus is often on the more vulnerable around us. You need to be in the best position possible so you can look after your child - it is about strengthening yourself so you can be strong for your child. Talk to other adults about your feelings and what is going on. Access support systems available to you and try to keep to as many routines as possible.

When to get professional help

Parents are the best support for children who have been through a traumatic event. Most young people's distress will improve with the love, care, and support from their family and whanau. Unfortunately it's impossible to predict those small numbers of young people who will have significant ongoing emotional difficulties following a natural disaster.

For some children they will need to have support from professionals. If your child's responses are severe or are ongoing (for example, they continue once normal routines such as going back to school are in place), your child may require extra help to cope. In addition, help from mental health services may be more likely for children or young people with existing mental health difficulties or those who have had previous mental health difficulties.

If you are concerned you should contact your family doctor who will be able to advise you what support is recommended and available.

Where to go for more information and help

  • community agencies
  • local medical services
  • if you and other family members are grieving as a result of a traumatic event, see the fact sheet - Bereavement reactions by age group

Acknowledgements

Thank you to the New Zealand Psychological Society for permission to adapt their document Life after earthquakes, written to help people as they cope with the impact of the Canterbury earthquakes and other disasters. 
http://www.psychology.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/1-Life-after-earthquakes-coping-with-a-traumatic-event.pdf (PDF, 370KB) [Accessed 25/02/2016]

Other references

  1. http://www.skylight.org.nz [Accessed 25/02/2016]
  2. http://www.cyh.com/HealthTopics/HealthTopicDetails.aspx?p=114&np=122&id=1739 
    [Accessed 25/02/2016]
  3. http://www.cyh.com/HealthTopics/HealthTopicDetails.aspx?p=114&np=141&id=1560
    [Accessed 25/02/2016]

This page last reviewed 25 February 2016.
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