Coping with Disasters

How Families Can Cope with Relocation Stress After a Disaster

​Unplanned evacuations during a disaster can cause great stress on a community and on the individuals in that community.

First Steps of Recovery
Recovering from a disaster occurs in phases over days, weeks, and months. Soon after being uprooted by a disaster, families can start the recovery process. Right now, there are three general steps to take to improve the mental and emotional strength of the family.

The following steps will help everyone to begin to retake control over life:

Step 1: Rebuild physical strength and health. Once everyone is in a safe and secure place, whether a shelter, a new apartment, or a place with relatives or friends, make sure to tend to their immediate medical needs, if any. Be sure everyone has enough to eat and drink to regain their physical strength. Make sure everyone gets some restful sleep in as private a space as possible. Rebuilding physical strength is a good first step to calm shattered emotions.

Step 2: Restore daily activities. Restoring daily routines helps build a sense of being home mentally and emotionally, even in the absence of a physical home. Simple routines normally done together, such as family walks, watching television, and bedtime stories, help pull the pieces of daily life back together even in a new place. Restoring daily activities rebuilds the normal sense of morning, afternoon, evening, and night. Even though you are away from home and in a strange place, try to resume the daily routines as much as possible.

Step 3: Provide comfort. Family members are better able to deal with the stress of relocation when they are comfortable and informed. Comfort can be increased by

Providing family with information about other family members, friends, and news of home.

Expressing affection for family members, in the ways the family normally shows affection.

Discussing, when ready, the emotions associated with the disaster and relocation feelings of loss, missing home, and worry about family members, friends, and pets.

Rebuilding Family Life
After the initial emergency has passed and the shock and confusion from disaster relocation have subsided, the physical rebuilding and long-term emotional recovery phase begins.

This longer recovery phase has two steps:
Assess all physical and emotional losses your family has experienced. This inventory can help identify practical actions to take in rebuilding the physical losses the family has experienced.

Develop an emotional understanding of the disaster experience and relocation situation to help rebuild family life. Working through emotions takes time. There is no set timeframe or stages for it.

Resolving emotions is a natural healing process that relies on talking to friends about feelings, mental sorting of emotions, and receiving practical and emotional help from family, friends, your place of worship, or other organized support groups in the community.

About Disaster-Related Stress in Children
Disaster-related stress affects young people in several ways:

Damage, injuries, and deaths that result from an unexpected or uncontrollable event are difficult for most children to understand.

Following a disaster, a child’s view of the world as safe and predictable is temporarily lost. This is true of adults as well.

Children express their feelings and reactions in various ways, especially in different age groups.

Many are confused about what has happened and about their feelings. Not every child has immediate reactions; some can have delayed reactions that show up days, weeks, or even months later, and some may never have a reaction. Children’s reactions are strongly affected by the emotional reactions of their parents and the adults around them. In addition, children can easily become afraid that a similar event will happen again and that they or their family will be injured or killed.

How Children Show Disaster-Related Stress
It is normal for young people to show signs of stress after a disaster. Young people show signs of stress differently at different ages or school levels.

  • Signs of stress in preschoolers:

Waking confused and frightened from bad dreams

Being reluctant to going to bed or refusing to sleep alone

Acting and showing behaviors younger than their actual age, such as whining, thumb sucking, bedwetting, baby talk or fear of darkness

Clinging to adults more than normal

Complaining often about illnesses such as stomachaches

Not having fun doing things they normally enjoyed

Being irritable

  • Signs of stress in elementary or middle school age:

    Ongoing concern over their own safety and the safety of others in their school or family

Irrational fears

Becoming extremely upset for little or no reason

Having nightmares and sleep problems

Experiencing problems in school, such as skipping school or misbehavior (e.g., loss of interest, withdrawal, and excessive need for attention)

Complaining of headaches or stomachaches without cause

Not having fun doing things they normally enjoyed

Disruptive behaviors-outbursts of anger and fighting

Being numb to their emotions

Experiencing guilt or shame about what they did or did not do during the disaster

  • Signs of stress in high school age:

Feeling self-conscious about their feelings concerning the disaster

Feeling fearful, helpless, and concerned about being labeled “abnormal” or different from their friends or classmates (this may lead to social withdrawal)

Experiencing shame or guilt about the disaster

Expressing fantasies about retribution concerning people connected to disaster events

Not having fun doing things they normally enjoyed

Difficulty concentrating

Impulsive behaviors

Emotional numbing

Seeing the world as an unsafe place

When Children May Need Additional Help
Situations may develop when children need additional help dealing with emotional after-effects of the disaster. They may benefit from help from a healthcare professional if the emotional stress associated with the disaster does not get better in a few weeks or when they:

Display continual and aggressive emotional outbursts

Show serious problems at school (e.g., fighting, skipping school, arguments with teachers, or food fights)

Withdraw completely from family and friends

Cannot cope with routine problems or daily activities

Engage in vandalism or juvenile law-breaking activities

Express suicidal ideas

Reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness. People have limits and sometimes need help when stretched beyond their limits. Seeking help from others can offer solutions that may not be known to you.

Additional Information & Resources:
Responding to Children’s Emotional Needs During Times of Crisis

Talking to Children about Disasters

How Children of Different Ages Respond to Disasters

Taking Care of Yourself during Disasters: Info for Parents

Helping Children Adjust to a Move

National Mental Health Association

Crisis Helpline – Dial 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to be connected to a network of local crisis centers across the country.

Last Updated 9/27/2017

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