Helping Kids Cope with Traumatic Events


BATON ROUGE – Following tragic or traumatic events, such as a natural disaster, it is typical for children to react in different ways and to varying degrees. Reactions can include minor or major changes in how children feel emotionally and physically, how they function or behave, what they think about and how they get along with others. Recovery is the norm. Therefore, in most cases, reactions are temporary and gradually decrease as the days and weeks go by, especially if children have been given the appropriate support following the event. However, for some children, recovery does not come as readily. LSU Department of Psychology Assistant Professor Anna C. Long compiled this information sheet to offer guidance for parents and caregivers on how to support children following a natural disaster.

How to respond?

There are many things parents can do following a natural disaster to help their child(ren) cope. Below is a list of basic strategies that have been shown to be effective. It is important to pay attention to your child’s cues and follow his/her lead. Overreacting or forcing your child to talk may make it harder for them to cope and recover.

1.      Reaffirm your child’s physical wellbeing and perceptions of safety. The first and most important thing that caregivers can do following a natural disaster is provide their children with any practical help, emotional support or physical comfort they need. Help your children believe they are safe by taking care of their basic needs, providing accurate reassurances, minimizing exposure to potentially disturbing media coverage and being selective about the facts of the event that you share.

2.      Be available to talk to your children about the crisis event and answer their questions. When sharing facts about the event, the goal should be to help your children understand the event based on their age and maturity level and gain the information they need to feel secure. Provide ONLY verified facts in brief and simple language. Let your children guide the information you provide based on their questions. Do not provide unnecessary details and avoid sensationalizing or speculating. Let your children know that they may hear information about the event from others and that not all of the information they hear will be accurate. It is important to dispel rumors. Check in with your children about their day and encourage your children to come to you if they want to talk more or have other questions. Balance the information you provide with accurate reassurances about what is being done to help things get back to normal functioning.  
3.      Briefly prepare your children for the initial reactions that may follow crisis events. Reactions following a crisis event are not necessarily reasons for concern. Temporary changes in functioning are common and can vary from child-to-child. Again, recovery is the norm. Let your children know that people react in different ways to stressful events. People may feel sad, angry, scared, helpless or worried. People might be shocked or cry. People might have a hard time focusing or thinking. People might be hyperactive or irritable. People may have a hard time getting along with others or want to be left alone. People can also feel more tired, have trouble sleeping, or get headaches or stomachaches. All of these reactions and others are normal. Normalize these reactions for your children. Let your children know these reactions are temporary and are the way our bodies respond to change and stress. Provide any guidance needed to help them reduce their distress and promote adaptive functioning.

4.      Foster your children’s resilience. When necessary, help your children identify strategies that will help them cope positively. Promote your children’s use of active positive coping strategies through modeling, co-participation and/or discussion. The goal is to prevent your children from using avoidant or maladaptive styles of coping. Below is a brief list of positive ways to foster your child’s resilience.

o   One of the most important things you can do for your children to help them cope effectively is to maintain or return to normal routines and expectations as soon as possible to the extent possible. Getting back into the typical rhythm of life helps to provide a sense of comfort and security.

o   Get your children back engaged in activities they enjoy. Spend some time together as a family having fun.

o   Help your children feel empowered by getting them engaged in activities that build self-confidence.

o   Support your children in taking action to help themselves and others.

o   Help your children regulate their emotions by teaching them strategies to help them relax (e.g., deep breathing).

o   Encourage your children to seek out social support from trusted individuals such as teachers, friends and family.

Take care of yourself and manage your stress. How adults react to the crisis can have a significant impact on children, especially young children. Therefore, it is critical for caregivers to take care of their own well-being in constructive ways and remain calm and reassuring to the extent possible. Children’s contact with adults who are struggling to cope adaptively or have lost emotional control should be minimized.

6.      Be aware of things that elevate your children’s risk.

o   Children who are physically closer to the crisis event are at greater risk than those far away. The closer your children are to the location of a crisis event and the longer they are exposed to it or its consequences, the greater the likelihood your children will view the event as personally threatening.

o   Having relationships with those significantly impacted by the crisis. The stronger your children’s relationships are with individuals significantly impacted, the greater the likelihood of your children experiencing severe distress. Children who have lost a caregiver or immediate family member are at greatest risk.

o   Individual vulnerability. Personal experiences and characteristics can make some children more vulnerable than others. These include the following:

i.  Children who are not living in their homes, have a family history of mental health issues or have caregivers who are severely distressed are more likely to be severely distressed themselves.

ii.  Children who do not have supportive and nurturing friends or relatives, suffer more than those who have a good support system. One supportive and nurturing source can make all the difference for a child.

iii.  Children who had mental health problems or behavioral challenges before experiencing the crisis event will be more likely to be severely distressed/impacted.

iv.  Children’s age and maturity can impact their response. Young children may be protected from the emotional impact if they do not recognize the threat or are not aware of its gravity. However, once a young child or a child who is immature perceives a situation as threatening, he/she is more likely to experience severe distress.

v.  Children who have experienced previous traumatic or frightening events are more likely to be significantly impacted by the present crisis event, especially if the previous event shares similarities to the present one.

Signs That Help Is Needed

Parents and caregivers can help reduce severe or long-lasting effects of a traumatic event by being observant of children who are at greater risk or have displayed severe reactions. It is important to get children help if they are displaying a severe reaction or if they are not able to return to typical functioning for a prolonged period following the crisis event (e.g., few weeks). Some examples of severe reactions include, but are not limited to, the following:

o   Becoming hysterical, panicking or startling easily

o   Avoiding all activities that serve as a reminder of trauma

o   Withdrawing from other people

o   Having difficulty feeling positive emotions

o   Engaging in maladaptive coping behaviors (ones that are harmful to self or others)

o   Having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, having difficulty concentrating, and/or being irritable or quick to anger for an extended period following the event




Anna C. Long is an assistant professor in the LSU Department of Psychology. Her area of expertise is in school psychology. She is available to speak with schools, community groups and news media.


LSU has a video uplink studio with live broadcast capabilities. Contact us to set up an interview with Dr. Long.



Note: Content for this handout was generated from the following sources.

Brock, S. E., Nickerson, A. B., Reeves, M. A., Jimerson, S. R., Feinberg, T., & Lieberman, R. (2009). School crisis prevention and intervention: The PREaRE model. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Heath, M. A. (2014). Best practices in crisis intervention following a natural disaster. In P. L. Harrison & A. Thomas (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology: Systems-level services (pp. 289-302). NASP: Bethesda, MD.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network,




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