kidscrisis New Jersey Project Recovery
New Jersey Division of Mental Health Services Community Crisis Counseling for Children and Adolescents
New Jersey's Project Recovery


Sussex, Morris and Warren Counties received historic rains beginning on Friday, August 11.  Thess record rains devasted sections of Sparta, and towns along the Lake Hopatcong shores as well as extensively damaging the infrastructure of the region.  On Thursday, August 17th, President Clinton declared the area a Federal Disaster Area.

In the fall of 1999 Hurricane Floyd ravaged eight counties in New Jersey.  Through FEMA-funding, crisis counseling has been provided to the residents of that area on an ongoing basis.  Below you can find the information that was developed to assist community and agency leaders in understanding the focus and design of FEMA crisis counseling.  Some of these ideas and models may be useful in addressing the emotional needs of those individuals and families impacted by this most recent storm.  Please note that there are additional web sites addressing the post-flood reaction of children and adolescents attached, and those may be helpful to families in addressing the needs of their children.

Special Considerations for Children and Adolescents

Even though the Tropical Storm  which ravaged New Jersey and North Carolina this September is over, the wide-spread damage to many communities remains a visable reminder of the disaster. The aftermath of such a disaster is not only obvious in the streets and homes of our towns, but is apparent on the faces of children and adolsescents as well.

This site has been developed specifically for school teachers, counselors and administrator, as well as other professionals involved in providing post-disaster assistance to the children impacted by the storm.

In every child's life there are occassional upsets and frustrations, but the trauma that can result from a natural disaster may affect a child for months or perhaps years. Some children may not be able to even begin to express their distress until months after the event.

Certain life events may make a child more vulnerable to having difficulty.  If a child has experienced a recent loss such as a divorce, a death of a grandparent or a move to a new neighborhood, he or she may feel increasingly devastated by the disaster.

Communication is one of the most important ways to help children recover from the emotional impact of the disaster. The information on these pages includes general guidelines and have been prepared as a resource for school personnel and other caregivers.  

This site was developed by Steven Crimando,MA, BCETS, A Deplomate of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ's)

The following FAQ's address common concerns about assisting children after a disaster. It is important to remember that each child or teenager may have their own way of coping with the event.  Much of that style is influenced by cultural factors, family history and prior experience with loss or trauma. These guidelines are general in nature and if the educational or caregiving professional observes any evidence of serious physical or emotional reactions, referral to a qualified mental health provider may be in order.

How do children and adolescents react to disaster?

After an initial period of recovery, typically six weeks to three months, most children and teens begin to return to their "normal" behaviors or "old selves".  In the first days and weeks following the disaster the "normal reactions to abnormal events" often include:

Fear and Anxiety:

Depending on the child's age and stage of development, various manifestations of anxiety may be present.  Children are often afraid that the disaster will happen again.  Children deeply fear being left alone, and even though these fears may seem unrealistic to adults, they are very real and powerful to children.

Due to this anxiety children of all ages may experience difficulty sleeping, eating, or simply sitting still.  Restlessness and irritablity are not uncommon.  In fact, due to fatigue, difficulty concentrating, a decline in school performance and aggression, many children experiencing traumatic stress reactions after a disaster are often mislabeled with Attention Deficit Disorder.  The educational or mental health professional must be careful not to mislable or diagnosis children in the first weeks or months after a tragedy.

Childish or Regressive Behaviors:

The fear and anxiety discussed above often cause children to act younger than their age or to return to earlier types of behaviors.  Some may return to such behaviors as thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, and avoidance of strangers.  An older child who is otherwise fairly independent, may being staying home more often.

Children under Five

Young children often experience nightmares, fear of the dark and changes in appetite.  They may have difficulty speaking, have more crying or clingy behavior, and be very afraid of being left alone.

Children ages 5-11

School-age children may also show anxiety through irritability, aggression and competing with their siblings for parental attention, or by whining, withdrawl from peers, and loss of interest in normal activities.  


Teens often display outright rebellion, and physical problems. Some teens act out by skipping school, beginning or increasing substance abuse, and even through sexually permiscous behavior.  Diasters can have the affect of aging teens and forcing them into parental roles and the behaviors of adults.  

More than any other age group, teens who survive a traumatic event can become involved in "risk-taking" behaviors.  Besides the substance abuse and sexual behavior described above, teens may drive recklessly, become involved in petty crime or generally tempt fate.

Physical Reactions

All children, regardless of age are vulnerable to the physical reactions which follow traumatic exposure.  These reactions include: stomach aches, headaches, nausea, eating changes and other physical signs of distress.

Trigger Reacttions

Sometimes a child will associate a particular smell, sound, object or activity with the disaster.  He or she may experience excessive arousal, avoidance or re-experiencing of the event when presented with a reminder of the disaster.  These reactions may include "flashbacks" which are very powerful physical and emotional episodes of re-experiencing the original trauma.


Children can feel overwhelmed by the changes and emotions which accompany their families' response to the disaster.  They may withdraw, feel less inclined to play or socialize with peers, and seem very "down", sullen or isolated.

Difficulties with Thinkings

Children of all ages can experience problems with concentration.  Many find that they are distractable and feel disoriented or confuses at times.  

Repetitive Play

Although uncomfortable for parents to watch, some children become preoccupied with the details and events surrounding the disaster and want to talk about them frequently.  When they play or draw pictures, they often retell or reenact with play their experience of the disaster.

What can the schools do to help children?

There are a host of stategies schools and social service agencies can employ to assist children and teens after a disaster or other traumatic event. They include, but are not limited to:

Creating opportunities, both within stuctured class time and in special groups to allow children to talk with each other about the disaster and how they feel.  This concept of "ventilation" can be used with art and other expressive methods, in addition to just talking.

Provide clear, accurate answers to questions.  Children seek clarity and often family members are unable to provide straigth answers for children.  Make sure you are clear on the facts and providing accurate information.  Make sure the child understands your answer and the meaning you intend.

Respond to questions, repeat information and provide ongoing reassurance.

Set clear limits as calmly as you can when children are expressing anxiety, fear or anger by acting wildly or aggressively.

Be caring and supportive; children espcially rely on the structure at school when the structure at home collapses.  Reassure the child that you are concerned and willing to help by listening and providing resources when necessary.

When is professional mental health assistance needed?

Even though children can be deeply affected by trauma and loss, they can also be incredibly resilent.  All of the reactions previously mentioned are viewed as "normal" reactions by counselors.  Getting professional mental health assistance for a child is a good idea if the child is experiencing any of the following changes for more than four months after the disaster:

Serious behavioral or academic problems at school

Aggressive outbursts

Withdrawl from usual social activities or play with peers

Frequent nightmares or other sleep disturbances

Intense anxiety or avoidant behavior triggered by reminders of the event

Depression or a sense of hopelessness about life or the future

Alcohol or drug use problems or dangerous risk-taking behaviors

Continued preoccupation with the disaster as a primary focus of life.

Seeing a counselor does not suggest that a child or teen is "mentally ill" or that the school and family has failed to support him or her.  Following a trauma, many adults and children have found it helpful to talk with a counselor who has specialized training in post-trauma reactions, and can help them understand and deal with how they are feeling.

A Final Note...

Following Tropical Storm Floyd, the Federal Government, through FEMA has provided funding for Crisis Counseling efforts.  In the nine disaster-affected counties in New Jersey, a number of Crisis Counseling initiatives are underway.  If you are not sure what is available in your county, or what resources may be available to your school, please contact Project Recovery Team Leaders: Steve Crimando, MA, BCETS at (973)688-3504 or MaryAnn Chernak, Ph.D. at (732)367-7128; or  Gladys Padro, MSW in the Office of the Deputy Director, at the Division of Mental Health Services in Trenton at (609)777-0722.

This site was developed by Steven Crimando, MA, BCETS, Diplomate of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress
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Last updated  2008/09/28 06:59:51 PDTHits  622