Social Workers Offer Tips for Coping with Stress from Disasters

Below are some tips for families coping with the stress of natural disasters, developed by NASW. Please feel free to use or disseminate this tip sheet in any way you see fit.

The NASW North Dakota Chapter has taken the initiative in putting social workers in touch with the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and other organizations that deploy volunteers in response to the flood. The chapter has contacted professional social workers in the state, informing them how to volunteer their services. The chapter plans to follow up with its members after the crisis ends, given the long-term impact of this natural disaster.

For further information, contact Jon Hiratsuka at or 202-336-8228.

For Immediate Release: April 23, 1997

Tips for Families

Coping with the Stress of Natural Disasters

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, there are new challenges. Rebuilding and repairing homes. Coping with job loss or job changes. Schools not open. Little privacy. The need to guard against disease. At times it is overwhelming. Everything is different.

Keeping families together and healthy over the coming months will require special care.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Try to establish a routine for your family life. Regular bed times, wake up times, regular breaks, and eating meals together -- all these can help you and your children feel more secure.
  • Set aside time just for family. With all the activity going on around you and people coming and going, it is important to find time to be together without a lot of distractions. As tough as it may be, try to find a little time each day for yourself and time alone with your spouse or partner. Those times can help you find the energy you need for the rest of the day.
  • Be sure that all family members are included in making plans. Talk to your children and spouse or partner about your options and your decisions. Listen to what they have to say and try to respond to their concerns.
  • Avoid physical punishment of children, including spanking or slapping. With all the pressure tempers flare and it’s easy to go too far.
  • Reassure your children about the future. Let them know that you have been frightened and uncertain too, but that you are working things out, and life will eventually return to normal.
  • Sending children to stay with family members or close friends outside the disaster area until homes can be repaired or rebuilt and schools can open may be an option. If you choose to do this, make sure your children understand that they are not being punished and that the move is temporary. Try to visit and call them often so they don’t feel so cut off from you.
  • Trust your instincts. You have done well to make it this far, you can make it the rest of the way.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. No one can deal with the problems caused by the disaster on his or her own. Help is available through the Red Cross Centers for both resource needs and physical and emotional care.

Experiencing a disaster is difficult for everyone. It is unrealistic to think that either we or children will just forget about it and move along. Over the next few weeks, many of us will experience stress. This is normal.

Normal reactions:

  • headaches, stomach aches or nausea
  • nightmares
  • trouble going to sleep or staying asleep
  • trouble concentrating
  • irritability
  • mood swings or outbursts of crying

In children, signs of stress may also include:

  • increased clinging to parents
  • a return to outgrown behaviors such as bed wetting or thumb sucking.
  • a change in the way he or she plays, such as repeating the same game over and over, or more hitting playmates or breaking toys.

Many of these things are normal in the weeks following a disaster. It will help to find time to talk to others about what has happened to you and what you face. Talk to your children and listen to their concerns. Give yourself and your children time to grieve for the things that you have lost. Set aside time for yourself and time to be alone as a family. Let your emotions out. Cry when you need to, but don’t let tears rule your life. Set priorities and try to deal with just a few things at a time.

If you feel as though you or your children are showing the signs of stress to an extreme, seek help. The Red Cross has social workers and other mental health professionals available to help you.

Remember, the aftermath of a natural disaster is an extreme situation. Asking for the help you and your family need is a strength not a weakness.