Crisis Counseling Guide

Age-Related Reactions of
Children to Disasters

If an emergency/disaster occurs, it is important to recognize normal reactions of children to the event. Reactions of children are generally age related and specific. This section provides an overview of normal reactions within determined age groups and helpful hints for enabling children to cope with the disaster-precipitated stress. Also included is a list of symptoms which may warrant referral to a mental health professional.

Disaster may strike quickly and without warning. These events can be frightening for adults, but they are traumatic for children. During a disaster, your family may have to leave their home and daily routine. Children may become anxious, confused or frightened. As a parent, you will need to cope with the disaster in a way that will help children avoid developing a permanent sense of loss. It is important to give children guidance that will help them reduce their fears. Ultimately, you should decide what's best for your children, but consider using these suggestions as guidelines.

Key Concepts

Reactions to disasters may appear immediately after the disaster or after several days or weeks. Most of the time the symptoms will pass after the child readjusts. When symptoms do continue, most likely a more serious emotional problem has developed. In this case, referring the child to a mental health worker who is experienced in working with children and trauma would be necessary.

Reactions by Age Groups

Preschool (1-5 years)

When faced with an overwhelming situation, such as a disaster, children in this age range often feel helpless and experience an intense fear and insecurity because of their inability to protect themselves. Many children lack the verbal skills and conceptual skills needed to cope effectively with sudden stress. The reactions of their parents and families often strongly affect them. Abandonment is of great concern for preschoolers, and children who have lost a toy, pet, or a family member will need extra comfort.

Typical Reactions:

Helpful Hints:

School Age (5-11 years)

The school-age child is able to understand permanent changes or losses. Fears and anxieties predominate in this age group. Imaginary fears that seem unrelated to the disaster may appear. Some children, however, become preoccupied with the details of the disaster and want to talk about it continuously. This can get in the way of other activities.

Typical responses:

Helpful Hints:

Preadolescence (11-14 years)

Peer reactions are especially significant in this age group. The child needs to know that his/ her fears are both appropriate and shared by others. Helping should be aimed at lessening tensions and anxieties and possible guilt feelings.

Typical Responses:

Helpful Hints:

Adolescence (14-18 years)

A disaster may stimulate fears concerning the loss of their families and fears related to their bodies. It threatens their natural branching away from their family because of the family's need to pull together. Disasters disrupt their peer relationships and school life. As children get older, their responses begin to resemble adult reactions to trauma. They may also have a combination of some more childlike reactions mixed with adult responses. Teenagers may show more risk-taking behaviors than normal (reckless driving, use of drugs, etc.). Teens may feel overwhelmed by their emotions, and may be unable to discuss them with their families.

Typical Responses:

Helpful Hints:

Referral to a Mental Health Professional

Following a disaster, people may develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is psychological damage 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, distressing 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 its symptoms can occur soon after the event, the disorder often surfaces several months or even years later. Parents should be alert to these changes:

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. (The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Tips for Parents

Children often imitate their parent's behavior. When parents have coped well with the situation, there is an excellent chance the children will also cope well. When problems are kept hidden and not discussed openly, children may interpret this to mean that something dreadful is going on, often even worse that it really is.

How Parents Can Help Their Children Cope

Children depend on daily routines: They wake up, eat breakfast, go to school, play with friends. When emergencies or disasters interrupt this routine, children may become anxious. In a disaster, they will look to you and other adults for help. How you react to an emergency gives them clues on how to act. If you react with alarm, a child may become more scared. They see our fear as proof that the danger is real. If you seem overcome with a sense of loss, a child may feel their loss more strongly.

Children's fears also may stem from their imagination, and you should take these feelings seriously. A child who feels afraid is afraid. Your words and actions can provide reassurance. When talking with your child, be sure to present a realistic picture that is both honest and manageable. Feelings of fear are healthy and natural for adults and children. But as an adult, you need to keep control of the situation. When you are sure that danger has passed, concentrate on your child's emotional needs by asking the child what is uppermost in his or her mind. Having children participate in the family's recovery activities will help them feel that their life will return to "normal." Your response during this time may have a lasting impact.

Be aware that after a disaster, children are most afraid that-

Advice for Parents: Prepare for Disaster

You can create a Family Disaster Plan by taking four simple steps. First, learn what hazards exist in your community and how to prepare for each. Then meet with your family to discuss what you would do, as a group, in each situation. Next, take steps to prepare your family for disaster such as: posting emergency phone numbers, selecting an out-of-state family contact, assembling disaster supply kits for each member of your household and installing smoke detectors on each level of your home. Finally, practice your Family Disaster Plan so that everyone will remember what to do when a disaster does occur.


After the Disaster: Time for Recovery

Immediately after the disaster, try to reduce your child's fear and anxiety.

You can help children cope by understanding what causes their anxieties and fears. Reassure them with firmness and love. Your children will realize that life will eventually return to normal. If a child does not respond to the above suggestions, seek help from a mental health specialist or a member of the clergy.