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The tornado that ripped through Joplin, MO on May 22, 2011 forever changed the lives of young and old who experienced the devastation.How to help children, youth and teens after a disaster

Lucy Schrader, Building Strong Families Program Coordinator; Sherry Nelson, Human Development Specialist; Tom Fuhrman, Human Development Specialist, University of Missouri Extension


Natural disasters take a great toll on families and communities. Depending on the event, families may be dealing with loss of property and loss of family members. Some families and children will be able to handle the situation better than others, with some needing extra support and help. Each individual’s reaction will be different (including how children, youth and teens respond).


Even if a family’s home, friends or family were not involved in the disaster, people’s routines and schedules may be affected by damage to schools, places of work or businesses. Stress and problems may not show up immediately. Children and teens may show behaviors and problems several weeks or months after the event. It helps to be aware of possible signs to look for.


The youth’s age and development will make a difference in what they understand and how they deal with the situation. The following table shows different ages and stages and how youth and teens might react to the event.



Developmental stages

Possible response after a disaster

Infants and toddlers

Do not understand world events

Respond to the moods of those around them and to change of routines

Preschoolers: ages 3 to 5

Have active imaginations

Will think an event is happening again and again when they see repeated showings of an event in the media

Do not always know the difference between make-believe and reality

May replay the event over and over, either in play or have upsetting nightmares of monsters or bad things, or trying to save someone

Most of what they know is based on what they see and hear (may not understand time, distance, location)

May not know where an event is that is shown in the media

Have emotions but cannot always control them

Worry something bad is going to happen to them or their family

School agers: ages 6 to 12

Beginning to understand some of what they see and hear

Worry about their families and friends

Like rules

React with fear and anxiety

Interested in learning the how or why of a disaster

May still have a hard time accepting or fully understanding explanations (so they will ask questions again)

Teens: ages 13 to 17

Trying to develop who they are, what they stand for and what they believe

May be preoccupied with their thoughts and actions

Abstract thinkers — can understand actions and consequences

Sense of safety and security is threatened

May not want to talk about feelings or what they are thinking about


Friends and peers are very important

May worry about others

Feel invincible (that bad things cannot happen to them — those things happen to others)

May engage in risky behavior


May see this as an opportunity to get involved or to volunteer (to collect food and supplies, for example)


Here are some things you can do to help a youth or teen after a disaster:


  • Be open: Let them ask questions and try to be as supportive as possible. It is better not to force them to talk until they are ready.
  • Give honest information and answers: Do your best in giving answers. If you make things up, children and teens may not trust you or your reassurances in the future.
  • Use words and descriptions that they understand: Try to be clear and give explanations that fit the age of the child. For example, if the storm damaged your roof, you might tell a 5-year-old: “The roof got a hole in it and we’re going to get it fixed.” You might tell a teenager: “The tree fell on our roof during the storm. We’ll have to let the insurance agents look at it first and then we can get someone to fix it.”
  • Be prepared to repeat explanations and information: Some children may ask the same question over and over. They are trying to process the situation and they may not understand how something like this happened. Try to be patient, answer and reassure.
  • Be patient: Children may regress in behaviors or act out. A child might be potty trained and start wetting the bed again, or a young child may start biting. School-age children might not want to go to school or leave the home. Teens may say they are OK, but then argue and yell. Try to be patient and tell them that it is a tough time, but things will calm down.
  • Acknowledge and validate thoughts, feelings and reactions: Family members may be struggling with all that has happened. Remember to let children and adults know that their questions and concerns are important and appropriate. For example, you might say: “That is a good question. I wonder about that, too. Let’s see if we can find someone who can help us get the answer.” It’s also important for adults to acknowledge, understand and work through thoughts, feelings and reactions.
  • Help youth find ways to express themselves: Children may not be able to express their feelings into words. Let them draw pictures, make things out of play dough, write or tell stories, play with toys or make songs that tell what they are thinking and feeling, or keep a journal to draw or write words.
  • Focus on what you can do: You may not have all of the answers. Try to focus on what you can do as a family. For example, say things like: “We are going to support each other. We are going to be patient with each other. We realize this is very stressful for all of us, so we are going to forgive each other if we get frustrated or say things we don’t mean.”
  • Limit media exposure: If possible, limit how much youth are watching or accessing the media about disasters. The news often repeats coverage of a disaster and the Internet may make the information available any time. Repeated exposure, however, can affect youth in a negative way (repeating the disaster, bringing up fear or anxiety, bad dreams, etc.). Very young children think the disaster is happening again, and do not understand that the coverage is being replayed.
  • Watch for other symptoms: Children and teens (and adults) may show worry and stress through physical signs, like stomach problems and headaches or chewing on their fingernails, etc.


For older youth and teens, asking questions and listening to them can be very helpful. When they are sharing ideas, be sure to listen and try not to fix what they are going through or finish the answers. Here are some ideas:

  • What were your first thoughts when this happened?
  • How do you feel about what happened?
  • I am really sad this happened.
  • I know a lot of people wonder if a storm like that will happen here. Can you help me with our safety plan, so we know what to do?
  • I would like to contribute to the relief effort. What are your ideas?
  • How would you like to help your friends?


Consider getting help from a doctor or mental health professional if a child or teen:

  • Has ongoing sleep problems
  • Has constant thoughts or worries that keep the child from playing, going to school or doing usual activities
  • Continues to have fears about death, leaving parents or going to school
  • Is preoccupied with questions or concerns about natural disasters
  • Engages in risky behaviors (e.g., uses alcohol, drugs or excessive amounts of caffeine)


For more information see Facts for Families (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry):
#4 The Depressed Child
#8 Children and Grief
#34 Children's Sleep Problems
#66 Helping Teenagers with Stress
#70 Posttraumatic Stress Disorder


For more information on how to help children, youth and families deal with a disaster, go to Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN), online at:


To find local Missouri mental health centers, you can call Missouri Department of Mental Health at 800-364-9687 or go online to


American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. (December 2008). Facts for Families: Helping children after a disaster. Retrieved on June 28, 2011 from


American Psychiatric Association. (2011). Talking to children about disasters. Retrieved on June 28, 2011 from


Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN). Children and disasters. Retrieved on July 6, 2011 from


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Last update: Monday, December 17, 2012