Working with Children after Disasters

Texas Border Crisis. Hurricanes Florence and Michael. Thousand Oaks and Pittsburgh shootings. California Camp Fire. The heaviness of these tragic situations is impossible to miss. Regardless of your awareness of the all the details (or lack thereof), you are probably like me: you feel the urgency that these disasters create, and you simply cannot avoid the thought of how these situations will forever shape the lives of the children they touch.

Every disaster situation is completely different, and no amount of training or experience can truly prepare you for what you are walking into. I am very aware of this, and yet I must admit that I cannot help but feel surprised at my own complete bewilderment each time I arrive to a disaster site. No two disasters are ever the same and each holds its own unique intensity that is unlike any other.

I had the privilege of deploying to the California Camp Fire in Chico, CA, last month. This one particularly shocked me in two key ways: 1) the sheer magnitude of the destruction and the numbers of people who lost everything, and 2) the overwhelming expression of emotions, more specifically the anger, frustration, confusion and aggression that the kids simply couldn’t hold back while they were with us in our play space.

Power of Play

I always thought building trust was a prerequisite and an absolute “rule” for children before they could express some of their deepest thoughts, fears, and emotions with someone. In this situation, however, most of the kids we worked with seemed to be immediately spilling over with their mixed, varied, and overwhelming emotions. Maybe it was the collective nature of an entire community suffering together that created a sense of immediate trust, openness, or necessity of genuine expression. Or maybe it was the intensity of the emotions themselves that the kids simply couldn’t hold inside. I will most likely never know, but there was no time to consider that in the moment since the children needed our support and safe space right away. The play they displayed was sometimes calm or quietly repetitive, and other times the play included aggression with potential harm to others due to their high-energy and risk-taking behaviors as their emotions and stories were expressed both verbally and non-verbally. During some of the high-energy play moments, we sometimes struggled as a team to balance allowing expression while also ensuring the physical and emotional safety of all the kids in our space. They seemed to have a deep need for healthy outlets for true expression and also assurance that all were safe and felt safe. This became even more tricky to navigate with the large numbers of kids we had in our center at one time. There were many challenging moments, but our team worked together to maintain our focus of providing a safe and healthy opportunity for kids to begin to process through their thoughts, feelings, experiences, and fears.

Our team had a beautiful combination of various backgrounds, professions, and life experiences and each person brought unique gifts and perspectives to the team. The teams in California are continuing to adapt the play space and make decisions together to ensure a safe place both physically and emotionally for the kids. I am so grateful for the diversity of the teams we deploy with and for the skill-sets each person brings to the table. Together, we can create a space that is exactly what the kids need in that moment.

CLDR - CDS Volunteers

Thank you to those in our child life community who have joined us in this mission to make sure all children have the tools and resources needed to promote resiliency after disaster– no matter what unique disaster situation we may face!

If you are interested in learning more about how you can get involved in this work, please visit or contact us at [email protected]

– By Katie Nees and Erin Silber

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