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Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters: What Parents Can Do

For Parents of Children Exposed to Violence or Disaster

Violence or disasters can cause trauma in young people. Trauma is hurt or harm. It can be hurt to a person’s body. It can be harm to a person’s mind. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) works to help children who experience trauma. Other Federal agencies also provide help.

Parents and family members play important roles. They help children who experience violence or disaster. They help children cope with trauma. They help protect children from further trauma. They help children get medical care and counseling. They also help young people avoid or overcome emotional problems. These problems can result from trauma.

This fact sheet provides steps parents can take. It gives information on:

Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters: What Parents Can Do 
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Coping with Trauma After Violence and Disasters

Disasters cause major damage. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were examples. They occurred in 2005. Many homes were destroyed. Whole communities were damaged. Many survivors were displaced. There were also many deaths.

Trauma is also caused by major acts of violence. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were examples. Another example was the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 was also an example. These acts claim lives. They also threaten our sense of security.

Beyond these events, children face many other traumas. Each year, they are injured. They see others harmed by violence. They suffer sexual abuse. They lose loved ones. Or, they witness other tragic events.

Children are very sensitive. They struggle to make sense of trauma. They also respond differently to traumas. They may have emotional reactions. They may hurt deeply. They may find it hard to recover from frightening experiences. They need support. Adult helpers can provide this support. This may help children resolve emotional problems.

What is Trauma?

There are two types of trauma — physical and mental. Physical trauma includes the body’s response to serious injury and threat. Mental trauma includes frightening thoughts and painful feelings. They are the mind’s response to serious injury. Mental trauma can produce strong feelings. It can also produce extreme behavior; such as intense fear or helplessness, withdrawal or detachment, lack of concentration, irritability, sleep disturbance, aggression, hyper vigilance (intensely watching for more distressing events), or flashbacks (sense that event is reoccurring).

A response could be fear. It could be fear that a loved one will be hurt or killed. It is believed that more direct exposures to traumatic events causes greater harm. For instance, in a school shooting, an injured student will probably be more severely affected emotionally than a student who was in another part of the building. However, second-hand exposure to violence can also be traumatic. This includes witnessing violence such as seeing or hearing about death and destruction after a building is bombed or a plane crashes.

Helping Young Trauma Survivors

Helping children begins at the scene of the event. It may need to continue for weeks or months. Most children recover within a few weeks. Some need help longer. Grief (a deep emotional response to loss) may take months to resolve. It could be for a loved one or a teacher. It could be for a friend or pet. Grief may be re-experienced or worsened by news reports or the event’s anniversary.

Some children may need help from a mental health professional. Some people may seek other kinds of help. They may turn to religious leaders. They may turn to community leaders.

Identify children who need the most support. Help them obtain it. Monitor their healing.

Identify Children Who:

These children may need extra help.

In general adult helpers should:

How Parents Can Help:

After violence or a disaster parents and family should:

Help for all people in the First Days and Weeks

Key steps after a disaster can help adults cope. Adults can then provide better care for children. Create an environment of safety. Be calm. Be hopeful. Be friendly, even if people are difficult. Connect to others. Listen to their stories. But, listen only if they want to share. Encourage respect for adult decision-making.

In general help people:

Avoid certain things:

How Children React to Trauma

Children’s reactions to trauma can be immediate. Reactions may also appear much later. Reactions differ in severity. They also cover a range of behaviors. People from different cultures may have their own ways of reacting. Other reactions vary according to age.

One common response is loss of trust. Another is fear of the event reoccurring. Some children are more vulnerable to trauma’s effects. Children with existing mental health problems may be more affected. Children who have experienced other traumatic events may be more affected.

Children Age 5 and Under

Children under five can react in a number of ways:

Young children’s reactions are strongly influenced by parent reactions to the event.

Children Age 6 to 11

Children between six and 11 have a range of reactions. They may:

Adolescents Age 12 to 17

Children between 12 and 17 have various reactions:

Adolescents may feel guilty about the event. They may feel guilt for not preventing injury or deaths. They may also have thoughts of revenge.

More About Trauma and Stress

Some children will have prolonged problems after a traumatic event. These may include grief, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Children may show a range of symptoms:

Children experience trauma differently. It is difficult to tell how many will develop mental health problems. Some trauma survivors get better with only good support. Others need counseling by a mental health professional.

If, after a month in a safe environment:

Then, contact a health professional.

Some people are more sensitive to trauma. Factors that may influence how someone may respond include:

Some symptoms may require immediate attention. Contact a mental health professional if these symptoms occur:

Additional Resources

Individuals and organizations can obtain publications about stress and anxiety disorders, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), from NIMH. Call the information service at 1-866-615-6464 (toll-free) or 1-866-415-8051 (TTY toll-free). Information is also online.

The list below includes other government agencies that may have additional information on helping children and adolescents cope with violence and disasters:

1) Center for Mental Health Services
Emergency Services and Disaster Relief Branch
5600 Fishers Lane, Room 17C-20
Rockville, MD 20857
Web site:

2) U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20202
Phone: 1-800-USA-LEARN
TTY: 1-800-437-0833
Web site:

3) U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001
Web site:

4) Federal Emergency Management Agency
(Information for children and adolescents)
P.O. Box 2012
Jessup, MD 20794-2012
Phone: 1-800-480-2520
Web site:

5) National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Phone: (802) 296-6300
Web site:

6) Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences
Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress
4301 Jones Bridge Road
Bethesda, Maryland 20814
Web site:

7) National Child Traumatic Stress Network
905 W. Main Street
Suite 25-B
Durham, NC 27701
Phone: (919) 682-1552
Fax: (919) 667-9578
Web site: