Talking to kids about disasters




I grew up in Bartlesville, OK. I have heard about tornadoes my entire life. I owned two child care programs in OK for over twenty-five years. As a kid I remember going into the hallways at school and putting my hands over my head while crouched down on my knees. In childcare we practiced relentlessly with the children.

The fire department recommended which area we take the kids to; how to protect the infants and toddlers and we practiced once a month during tornado season.

I remember the fear as a child and I remember the fear as an adult of being responsible for many children. At home my kids and I had an area in our house that we went to often over the years. As a single mom it was very scary being alone with my kids and being totally responsible. I prayed many times crouching in our designated area.

At my church as a child we would go into the lower level of our church when a tornado was approaching. I remember vividly crouching in that area and how safe I felt being in the Lord’s house with His people all around me as a tornado approached and the sirens were blaring.

Since storms and tornadoes have been rampant this year, children everywhere are going to be fearful. It doesn’t matter where they live. To a child it becomes a world turned upside down where everything feels unsafe, out of control and confusing.

What makes a difference is the reaction, interaction, care and attention of the adults surrounding the child.

When the trauma is very large, like a natural disaster, and on TV, Facebook and all over the Internet expect the impact to be widespread and long lasting. Remember kids will be seeing it on social media so please warn your parents to remember to monitor children’s Internet viewing.

Children’s emotional reaction to a crisis depends on their developmental level and on their experience with the people involved.

Here are a few universal reactions

  • Increased demands for attention
  • Isolation
  • Scared fearful/anxious
  • Overactive/silliness
  • Clingy, overly dependent on the adults around them
  • Attempt to order world
  • Crying, withdrawal
  • Regression (Baby talk, toileting, need to sleep with toys or blankets  given up long ago)
  • Quietness or lack of emotion
  • Complaint of pain (They may hurt physically with stomach aches, headaches, etc.)
  • Difficulty in concentration/focus

Children are children and they have a need to play and make things feel normal.

Here are some tips for to pass on to the parents when there is a community tragedy

  • Do not talk to other adults about the disaster in front of your children. Children don’t understand speculation.
  • Try to keep yourself calm. Kids WILL pick up on your anxieties. Children need to know and feel they are safe.
  • Parents please do not hug your child fiercely every time you see them. They may not fully comprehend all that has happened; however, they will pick up on your fretfulness.
  • At a calm moment sit down with your children and ask them what they know about the event. Ask them what they want to know. Explain things in as calm a voice as you can.
  • Don’t lie to your children. When they ask you what happened, tell them what  you know but do it on their developmental level. If they ask why God would allow this to happen, tell them God wants children to be safe.
  • Ask your children to pray with you for the families who have been hurt or died (depending on the age of your child). Continue to pray for people involved in the tornadoes, floods and other disasters for the next few days and weeks.
  • Pull your children up on your lap and tell your children they are safe. You can only guarantee your child’s safety in the moment and for now that is what they need.
  • Allow children to play through various situations. Even 9, 10 and 11 year old kids will pull out the army men and other characters and play through their stress and fears. Stay on the sidelines, listen and observe. Just let them play through without interruptions. Bath time is another time kids will play through frustrations.
  • Encourage your children to talk. Don’t ignore their fear.
  • Lastly turn off the TV. I can’t say this loud enough TURN OFF THE TV and monitor Internet activity. Younger children can’t tell the difference in reality and non-reality.

This Sunday and for the next several weeks, pray with the children in your churches for the families that have experienced a disaster. Consider showing your kids the tornado drill – kneel, crouch down with your face on your knees and hands over the back of your neck. I know when I was a kid it meant adding prayer to this position. Have the kids practice themselves so they can feel like they are connecting with the kids who have experienced a local tornado.

If you think children will need a visual, create a storm in a bottle. Take a two liter soda bottle; fill it with water; add monopoly pieces of houses or small plastic items; glue on the lid. When  you hold the bottle upright and shake vigorously you will create a tornado in a bottle. Add the scripture Psalm 32:7.

You are my hiding place from every storm of  life.

Read or paraphrase how Jesus calms the storm in Mark 4:35-41. Reassure the children they can trust Jesus and He will help the children affected by the tornado to get through this time also.

Take up a collection or do a fund raising so the children in your church can minister to the kids and families in disaster areas. Children naturally want to help. Give them that opportunity as part of their healing and to help them conquer their own fears.

As adults remember to pray for the many single parents in an area that has been hit hard by the recent storms. Take the children in single parent families aside and reassure them individually that they are okay. Children in single parent families often worry about their own safety. Help them pray for the kids in single parent families in other places.

Please feel free to print this post and hand it out to the parents in your church family.


DC4K blogs posts are great to use in training children’s leaders and volunteers and they are free.  Subscribe to the DC4K blog here

Want to learn more about how to start a DivorceCare for Kids group for the hurting children in  your community. Click here


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