top of page

Children's Reactions to Disasters

Normal Reactions to Disaster Induced Stress Most parents recognize when their children’s behavior indicates emotional distress. During routine, non-crisis times parents are tuned-in to the nuances of their children’s behavior. Most mothers can tell immediately if their young son or teenage daughter had a bad day at school or a fight with their best friend. A very common sign indicating distress is the sudden appearance of a very busy child, who just suddenly decides he or she will watch TV with his or her parents, and is not even particular about what they are watching. For most parents, this is when

their antennae go up and somehow they know it is time to give that extra hug and just be available. Typically, a few words eventually pass between the parent and child. Te parent smiles, the child looks relieved, and as quickly as the child appeared he or she vanishes back into his or her now somewhat reorganized and normal world. Under normal circumstances in the majority of nurturing families, they play this scene over and over and without really thinking anything of it. It is just a slice of daily life.Disasters are not normal or routine and therefore, impose a significant abnormality on our daily routines. Everyone is affected. ypical modes of interacting with each other are strained. All of us are trying to get a grip on things and as a result focus less on supporting each other. It is within this context that children experience the aftermath of disasters. 

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP, 1998)suggests that a child’s reaction to a disaster, such as a hurricane, flood, fire, or earthquake, depends upon how much destruction is experienced during or after the event. Te death of family members or friends is the most traumatic, followed by loss of the family home, school, special pets, and the extent of damage to th ecommunity. Te degree of impact on children is also influenced by the destruction they experience second hand through television and other sources of media reports.Generally, most children recover from the frightening experiences associated with a disaster without professional intervention. Most simply need time to experience their world as a secure place again and their parents as nurturing caregivers who are also again in charge.

Studies of how children have reacted to catastrophic events are limited.However, in the available work done on this topic there emerges a consistent pattern of responses and factors that influence the difficulty children may have in returning to their pre-disaster state. Yule and Canterbury (1994) reviewed a number of studies concerning children exposed to traumatic events. Te types of reactions experienced by many children reported include feeling irritable, alone, and having difficulty talking to their parents. Many experience guilt for not being injured or losing their homes. Adolescents are prone to bouts of depression and anxiety, while younger children demonstrate regressive behaviors associated with earlier developmental stages. Many children who have difficulty reconciling their feelings will engage in play involving disaster themes and repetitive drawings of disaster events. It has also been demonstrated that children as young as two or three can recall events associated with disasters. Te child’s level of cognitive development will influence their interpretation of the stressful events. Some studies reviewed by Yule and Canterbury suggest that the intellectual ability of the child, their sex, age, and family factors influence their recovery. Girls experience greater stress reactions than boys, bright children recover their pre-disaster functioning in school more rapidly, and families who have difficulty sharing their feelings experience greater distress. As expected, there also appears to be a direct relationship between the degree of exposure to frightening events and the difficulty in emotional adjust-ment and returning to pre-disaster functioning.


Mimi Rothschild

Mimi Rothschild is the Founder and CEO of the Global Grief Institute which provides Certification training programs forGrief Coach, Trauma Coach, End of Life Coach, and Children's Grief Coach. She is a survivor who has buried 3 of her children and her husband of 33 years. She is available for speaking engagements and comments to the press on any issue surrounding thriving after catastrophic loss. MEDIA INQUIRIES:

bottom of page