Helping Children Cope After a Major Earthquake

“Children may suffer from anxiety because of disaster losses and the upheaval of family life,” said Debborah Arnold, Executive Director, Kentucky Community Crisis Response Board. “Most children bounce back quickly with social support and the aid of their families, but it is important to be aware of your child’s reaction to stress and anxiety and to seek additional help if necessary.”

Children’s caregivers should be alert to signs of trouble and how to handle them. For children ages 5 or younger, watch for behaviors like crying more frequently than usual, clinging, having nightmares, showing excessive fear of the dark, fear of animals, fear of being alone, changing appetites, speaking with difficulty, or returning to outgrown behaviors such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking.

Children aged 5 to 11 may exhibit increased irritability, aggression, and competition with their siblings for parental attention. They may also show anxiety through whining, withdrawing from their peers, and losing interest in normal activities.

Adolescents aged 12 to 18 may show outright rebellion, physical problems, or sleep disturbances. Some may compete vigorously for attention from parents and teachers. Others may withdraw, resist authority, become disruptive at home or in the classroom, or even begin to experiment with high-risk behaviors like alcohol or drug use.

The following suggestions may help to reduce stress in children:

  • Spend some time each day giving each child your undivided attention, even if just for a few minutes. Share experiences. Reaffirm your love. Make plans together. Just “be there” for each other.
  • Encourage them to talk. Encourage children to describe what they are feeling. Let them talk about the disaster and ask as many questions as they like. Listen to what they say. Assure them that the disaster was an act of nature and not caused by them. Include the entire family in the discussion if possible.
  • Understand their fears. It is important that parents accept anxieties as being very real to children. Help them cope by getting them to understand what causes their anxieties and fears. Recognize their losses, such as their pets, favorite toys and other personal items. Reassure them that everything will be all right.
  • Inform children. Make every effort to keep children informed about what is happening. Explanations should be in simple language. With children 5 or older, rehearse safety measures for use in case of future disasters.
  • Reassure them. Parents can help reassure children by telling them they are safe, holding and hugging them frequently, restoring normal routines, providing play experiences for them, and making bedtime a special moment of calm and comfort.
  • Encourage activities with their peers. As with adults, social time with friends is a very important part of the recovery process.
  • Temporarily lower expectations for them. Allow for the fact that stress from the disaster can show itself in many ways over a period of time, and make appropriate allowances.

Through your persistence, children will realize life will eventually return to normal. If a child does not respond to the above suggestions, seek help for them from a behavioral health professional.

Suggestions: Protective behavior is one way in which a child may try to control their feelings of helplessness and fear. Actually, when this occurs they are denying their own feeling responses. Validate their loving protection but explain to them that it is also okay to be a child who needs loving care. Give them a role model to follow. Actions speak louder than words to children so share your tears, anger, and helplessness openly.
Children have a delayed response to loss, so it may be months before any of these feelings are expressed or even manifested. This is normal. A child may appear to be coping well immediately following an earthquake and then suddenly regress over a small aftershock two months later. It may take awhile for them to begin to feel safe in their world again.

Information to Share with Children
• One of the safest places to be during an
earthquake or aftershock is in a school
• If you are at school when an earthquake
happens remember that teachers are experts
in what to do in case of an emergency.
• Researchers recommend mentally
commanding the quake to stop during the
course of an earthquake or after-shock. Keep
repeating this command until the shaking
stops. For many people, this mental activity
reduces stress during and immediately
following the shaking.
• Aftershocks are to be expected. Though
aftershocks may be severe, they are not
expected to be as strong as the original
• Immediately following an earthquake or
aftershocks, hugs can really help us feel safe
• Everyone will need opportunities to talk and
listen to others. Parents, teachers, and
friends, will want to hear about your feelings.
• Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to talk
about your feelings-your friends are probably
feeling the same things you are.
• Get plenty of sleep and eat nutritious food.
• Bring a stuffed animal to school to be an
“earthquake buddy.”
• Remember that no matter how big an
earthquake is, your family or community will
take care of you.