Stress After a Disaster: Not Just for “Grown Ups”

Guest Blogger: Lisa A. Mazzeo, LCSW, BCD

When adults feel stressed, they can usually pinpoint the related feeling as well as the cause. They typically take appropriate action and hopefully begin to feel better shortly after implementing a strategy like listening to music, walking the beach or going for a drive. They choose anything that might bring a peaceful feeling back to their overall being.

When children feel stress, the cause, identification and intervention is not always that simple. This is due, mostly, to the fact that children have limited vocabulary to express what is going on, underdeveloped coping mechanisms to deal with it and an inability to make sense of what is happening in their environment.

child angry

Image Courtesy of Flickr

Children function best in routine and when routine is disrupted-likely due to an emergency or family crisis-they become disorganized, angry or irritable. They can’t always verbalize why but they know something isn’t quite right. In these circumstances, adults must come together to provide emotional safety and predictability for children and to teach them how to express themselves.

We help children when we give them words to describe their feelings (angry, sad, happy) and further help when we provide possible reasons why the feelings are justified (you are angry with mom because she said you had to put your toys away when you still wanted to play with them). Even older children and adolescents struggle to connect their feelings to the situations. It’s not uncommon for us to step in and help them.

When disaster strikes, children need us more than ever to help them put the pieces of their lives back together and help them to make sense of the world once again. They simply do not have the capacity to do so on their own. During these times, try to do the following:

  1. Talk age appropriately about what happened;
  2. Reassure the child that they are safe;
  3. Maintain routines as best as you can;
  4. Encourage significant “play-time.” Children work out most of their unresolved feelings through play;
  5. Be there to help interpret what the child is feeling and why (especially when there is a clear variable present);
  6. Help the child to identify the parts of their body that feels the stress;
  7. Teach the child simple relaxation techniques-like closing their eyes and counting to 10 or counting their breaths.

Children learn how to accept, express and understand the world, even when devastating things happen in it, when a caring adult takes the time to be with them and restore their safety.

BE that individual for a child.

~Lisa A. Mazzeo, LCSW, BCD

Author of Who Can Catch the Moon – Heartfelt, humorous and compelling stories of resiliency in society’s most vulnerable children.


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1 reply
  1. Sue
    Sue says:

    This works for so many situations. Parents need to print it out and prominently! Tough to remember under stress!

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