Children can feel very frightened during a disaster and afterwards some children will show temporary changes of behavior. For most children these changes will be mild, not last long, and diminish with time. However, reminders of what happened could cause upsetting feelings to return and behavior changes to emerge again. Watching scenes of the disaster on television can be distressing for children, especially for younger children. Younger children may return to bed-wetting, have difficulty sleeping, and not want to be separated from their caregivers. Older children may show more anger than usual, find concentrating at school harder, and want to spend more time alone than usual. Some children are more vulnerable, and their reactions can be more severe and last for a long period of time. Factors that contribute to greater vulnerability include:

  • Direct exposure to the disaster-This includes being evacuated, seeing injured or dying people, being injured themselves, and feeling that their own lives are threatened.
  • Personal loss-This includes the death or serious injury of a family member, close friend, or family pet.
  • On-going stress from the secondary effects of disaster-This includes temporarily living elsewhere, losing contact with their friends and neighbors, losing things that are important to them, parental job loss, and the financial costs of reestablishing their previous living conditions.
  • Prior exposure to disaster or other traumatic event-How parents and caregivers react to and cope with a disaster or emergency situation can affect the way their children react. When parents and caregivers or other family members are able to deal with the situation calmly and confidently, they are often the best source of support for their children. One way to help children feel more confident and in control is to involve them in preparing a family disaster plan

Children’s Reaction To Disaster-The following are common reactions that children may exhibit following a disaster. While the following descriptions are typical, some children may exhibit none of these behaviors and others may behave in ways not mentioned here.

Birth Through 6 Years-Although infants may not have words to describe their experiences, they can retain memories. They may react by being more irritable, crying more than usual, or wanting to be held and cuddled more. Preschool and kindergarten children can feel helpless, powerless, and frightened about being separated from their caregivers.

7 Through 10 Years-Older children can understand the permanence of loss. They may become preoccupied with the details of the traumatic event and want to talk about it continually. This preoccupation can interfere with their academic performance. Children may hear inaccurate information from their peers which parents can clarify. They may fear that the disaster will happen again and have sad or angry feelings.

11 Through 18 Years-As children mature, their responses become more similar to those of adults. Much of adolescence is focused on moving out into the world. Following a disaster, that world can seem more dangerous and unsafe. Teenagers may react by becoming involved in dangerous, risk-taking behaviors, such as reckless driving, and alcohol or drug use. Others may become fearful of leaving home and avoid social activity. Teenagers can feel overwhelmed by their intense emotions, yet unable to talk about them.