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How to help children cope with disaster

By Rebekah Hall
U of A System Division of Agriculture

April 3, 2023

Fast Facts:

  • Friday’s tornado caused devastation in central, eastern Arkansas
  • Parents should listen to and validate children’s emotions
  • Return to routines, watch for changes in behavior, volunteer for age-appropriate help efforts

(1,028 words)

(Newsrooms: With photos from March 31 tornado destruction:

(With Simon photo at

LITTLE ROCK — After a devastating tornado struck parts of central and eastern Arkansas on March 31, many children may be experiencing confusion, sadness or fear about the disaster.

TORNADO DESTRUCTION — In the wake of the tornado that struck eastern and central Arkansas on March 31, Rebecca Simon, extension instructor for early childhood and family life with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said parents and caregivers should speak to their children about the disaster, listen to and validate their feelings and watch for signs of significant changes in behavior. (Division of Agriculture photo.) 

Rebecca Simon, extension instructor for early childhood and family life with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said parents and caregivers should limit children’s exposure to images of the destruction, listen carefully to their concerns and watch for significant changes in behavior.  

“Many parents, teachers, grandparents and caregivers are concerned about how dramatic images of disaster can affect the emotional well-being of their children and are looking for advice,” Simon said.

Simon said it is critical to limit time watching television reports featuring images of the destruction caused by the tornado, which can overwhelm children and even adults.

It’s also important to listen to children carefully to find out what they know and understand about the disaster before responding to their questions, Simon said. 

“When children are given the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings about a disaster, it can help them process their emotions and cope with the situation,” she said. “By actively listening to their concerns and providing reassurance and support, children can feel more comfortable talking about their experiences and develop a better understanding of what has happened.”

As part of this process, reassure children by letting them know that adults are doing everything they can to protect and help people who have been affected by the disaster, Simon said.

“Let them know that if an emergency happens, your main concern would be their safety,” she said. “Make sure they know they are being protected.”

Simon said it can also be helpful to read an emergency-themed storybook together — such as “Stormy Night” by Salina Yoon, “Just a Big Storm” by Mercer Mayer or “Arthur’s Fire Drill” by Marc Brown — and then discuss the story after. Parents or caregivers should then ask questions such as Ask questions such as “How do you think the characters felt?” and “How did the characters keep themselves safe?”

Watch for changes in behavior

After a disaster, it’s especially important to be alert for changes in children’s behavior, Simon said. “Children may have difficulty processing and coping with the traumatic experience, and significant changes in behavior can be a sign that they are struggling and need support.”

These changes can manifest as withdrawal and isolation from others, aggression and irritability. Changes in eating or sleeping habits, difficulty concentrating, increased anxiety or fearfulness or regression to earlier developmental stages are also common signs.

“By being alert for these changes in behavior, parents, caregivers and teachers can provide timely interventions to help children process their experiences, reduce their stress levels and promote their mental health and well-being,” Simon said.

Remember that each child has unique needs, and not every child will experience a disaster in the same way, Simon said. Younger children are largely dependent on adults to interpret events, while older children and teenagers will get information from their friends and the media. In any case, it’s important to meet the child where they are.

“Give your child extra time and attention,” Simon said. “Children need close, personal attention to know they are safe. Talk, play, and most importantly, listen to them. Find time to engage in special activities with children of all ages.”

Getting back on track

Simon said it is also critical to help children return to a normal routine as soon as possible after a disaster because they benefit from routine activities, such as set eating times, bedtime, and playing with others.

To help children understand how to respond in disasters, parents and caregivers should model appropriate behavior to help children feel safe and secure, she said.

“Children can be easily influenced by the adults around them, and they may imitate the behavior of adults, including their emotional reactions and coping strategies,” Simon said. “For example, if an adult expresses intense fear or anxiety, the child may become more frightened or anxious themselves.”

Simon said that in addition to staying calm and composed, it’s also important to be direct.

“It is important to be honest with children about what happened and to use age-appropriate language to explain the situation,” she said. “Avoiding the topic or using euphemisms can increase confusion and anxiety in children.”

Encourage empathy by volunteering to help  

For many children returning to school this week, they’ll be joining classmates whose families have been impacted by the tornado and may be displaced from their homes. To help children navigate this, parents and caregivers should validate any big or difficult feelings.

“Acknowledge your child’s feelings of sadness or confusion and let them know that it is okay to feel this way,” Simon said. “Let them express their feelings and provide a safe and supportive environment to do so.”

Parents should also encourage empathy in their children, asking them to imagine how they would feel if they were in the same situation.  

“This can help develop empathy and foster a sense of understanding and compassion towards their classmates,” Simon said.

Encourage and support community efforts by participating in age-appropriate volunteer opportunities. This can include:

  • Making care packages with non-perishable food, toiletries and clothes
  • Drawing pictures and writing letters to be distributed at community centers or shelters
  • Collecting and distributing books, toys and blankets to support children who may have lost their homes and belongings in the tornado
  • Fundraising by hosting a lemonade stand, bake sale or selling artwork and crafts
  • Assisting in neighborhood clean-up efforts by picking up litter, raking leaves and helping to clear debris

“Parents should also explain the importance of volunteering and helping those in need and provide positive reinforcement for their efforts,” Simon said. “By participating in volunteer efforts, children can develop important life skills and a sense of community spirit, while also helping those affected by the disaster.”

To learn more about helping children cope after a disaster, check out the Helping Your Kids When Disaster Strikes article by Brittney Schrick, extension family life specialist for the Division of Agriculture. For more information about natural disaster recovery, visit the Cooperative Extension Service’s Natural Disaster Recovery in Arkansas page and the Arkansas Emergency Preparedness Resources page.


To learn about extension programs in Arkansas, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @AR_Extension. To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: Follow on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch. To learn more about the Division of Agriculture, visit Follow us on Twitter at @AgInArk.


About the Division of Agriculture

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system. 

The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.  

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs to all eligible persons without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.

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Media Contact:

Rebekah Hall