No. 36; Updated December 2014
A catastrophe such as an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, fire, flood, or violent acts is frightening to children and adults alike. Talking about the event with children can decrease their fear. It is important to explain the event in words the child can understand, and in a way that will not overwhelm them.
Several factors affect a child's response to a disaster. The way children see and understand their parents' responses are very important. Children are aware of their parents' worries most of the time, but they can be very sensitive during a crisis. Parents should talk about their worries to their children, and talk about their abilities to cope with the disaster. Pretending there is no the danger will not end a child's concerns.
A child's reaction also depends on how much destruction and/or death he or she sees during and after the disaster. If a friend or family member has been killed or seriously injured, or if the child's school or home has been severely damaged, there is a greater chance that the child will experience difficulties.
A child's age affects how the child will respond to the disaster. For example, six-year-olds may show their worries by refusing to attend school, whereas teens may minimize their concerns, but argue more with parents and show a decline in school performance.
Following a disaster, people may develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is a set of symptoms that can result from experiencing, witnessing, or participating in an overwhelmingly traumatic (frightening) event. Children with this disorder have repeated episodes in which they re-experience the traumatic event. Children often relive the trauma through repetitive play. In young children, upsetting dreams of the traumatic event may change into nightmares of monsters, of rescuing others, or of threats to self or others. PTSD rarely appears during the trauma itself. Though the effects can happen soon after the event, the disorder often surfaces several months or even years later.
After a disaster, parents should be alert to these changes in a child's behavior:
- Refusal to return to school and "clinging" behavior, including shadowing the mother or father around the house
- Continuing fears about the event (such as fears about being permanently separated from parents)
- Sleep disturbances such as nightmares, screaming during sleep and bedwetting, persisting more than several days after the event
- Loss of concentration and irritability
- Jumpiness or being startled easily
- Behavior problems, for example, misbehaving in school or at home in ways that are not usual for the child
- Physical complaints (stomachaches, headaches, dizziness) for which a physical cause cannot be found
- Withdrawal from family and friends, sadness, listlessness, decreased activity, and preoccupation with the events of the disaster
Professional advice or treatment for children affected by a disaster--especially those who have witnessed destruction, injury or death--can help prevent or minimize PTSD. Parents who are concerned about their children can ask their pediatrician or family doctor to refer them to a child and adolescent psychiatrist for an evaluation.