Talking to Kids in Times of Trauma

In the September 2012 issue of School Nutrition, Patricia L. Fitzgerald, Arianne Corbett, RD, and Cecily Walters shared the stories of school nutrition professionals who found themselves eye to eye with challenges presented during some recent natural disasters. Not only are these events scary for adults, they also are distressing for children. Read on for some advice and resources on talking to students in times of trauma.

Natural disasters are frightening events at any age.

“I was scared to death as an adult! I couldn’t imagine being a 6-year-old,” says Louisa County’s Randy Herman, SNS, of the 2011 Mineral, Va., earthquake. “But the kids were probably more resilient than the adults for the most part.” Nonetheless, some of the youngest were afraid to be back in the setting where they’d experienced the quake. Herman’s district made workshops and counselors available to students.

The day that schools in Jefferson County, Ala., reopened after the deadly April 2011 “Tuscaloosa tornado,” there was a bad thunderstorm, recounts Child Nutrition Program Director Sonja Anthony. “Everyone was skittish, and at one point the power went off and we could hear children screaming in the lunchroom. They were so terrified.”

Knowing how children may respond to this type of trauma at different ages can be helpful for adults—including both parents/caregivers and school staff—in recognizing problems and responding appropriately. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has developed a fact sheet on the topic, excerpted here:

  • Preschool: Children ages 1 to 5 find it difficult to adjust to change and loss, generally depending on adults to help through difficult times. Very young children may return to an earlier stage of behavior after a traumatic event, and changes in eating and sleeping habits are common, as are unexplainable aches and pains.
  • Early Childhood: Children ages 5 to 11 may have similar reactions to younger children. They may withdraw, become aggressive or find it hard to concentrate.
  • Adolescence: Children ages 12 to 14 may have vague physical complaints, as well as withdraw, resist authority or become disruptive at home or school.
  • Older teens: Older children may experience feelings of helplessness and guilt tied to not being able to assume full adult responsibilities to assist the community recover from a disaster. They also may deny the extent of their emotional reactions.

How should you approach the children in your life after disaster strikes?

  • Provide students with ongoing opportunities to talk about what they may have heard about the disaster or seen on television and to ask questions. Remember that they might have additional questions as time goes on.
  • Answer questions at a level that the child can understand.
  • Let children know that there are no “bad” feelings and that it is normal to experience a wide range of emotions after a disaster.
  • Help children identify the positive aspects present after a disaster, such as heroic actions, community support and families who are grateful for being reunited.

You may want to share these and other tips with your staff, other members of the school community and parents. For more on helping children after a disaster, check out the following resources:

  • Helping Children After a Disaster, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry,
  • Helping Children Cope With Disaster, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and American Red Cross,
  • Tips for Talking to Children After a Disaster: A Guide for Parents and Teachers, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,

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