Children's reactions to disaster depend on their age and maturity. Their responses also are affected by how close they are to the event, their level of exposure to it through TV and how they see their parents react. In general, most children have mild, short-lived behavior changes after a disaster. Infant to 6 years old.
Infants may become more irritable. They may cry more than usual or want to be held and cuddled more. Preschool and kindergarten children may feel helpless, powerless and frightened about being separated from their parent/caregiver. They may return to bed-wetting and have a hard time sleeping.
Children in this age group who know about loss may feel sad, angry or afraid the event will happen again. Peers may share false information that parents or caregivers then would need to correct. They may focus on details of the event and want to talk about it all the time. This may disrupt their concentration and affect how well they do in school. Preteen and teen.
Some preteens and teenagers respond with risky behaviors. This could include reckless driving, alcohol or drug use. Others may become afraid to leave home. They may cut way back on how much they hang out with their friends. They can feel overwhelmed by their intense emotions and yet be unable to talk about them. Those emotions may lead to increased friction, arguing and even fighting with siblings, parents/caregivers or other adults. Special-needs.
Children who are ventilator-dependent or are confined to a wheelchair or bed may have even more pronounced reactions to threatened or actual crises. The same is true for youth with other physical or mental limitations. They might display feelings like distress, worry or anger because they have less control over how they get around than other people. They may need extra verbal reassurance or more explanations, hugs, comfort and other positive physical contact.
Not all children respond these ways. Some might have more severe, longer-lasting reactions. Reactions may be related to several responsible factors:
Direct exposure to the disaster.
Being evacuated or seeing people injured or dying would affect them, as would being injured themselves or feeling their own lives were threatened.
They may see death or major injury of a family member, close friend or pet or experience ongoing stress from the effects of disaster. Such stress includes being away from home, losing contact with friends and neighbors and losing things that were important to them, like a favorite toy or access to a playground. Their lives are disrupted when they no longer have a usual meeting place or their routines and living conditions change.
A prior experience of trauma.
This experience would include having lived through or observed abuse or a major disaster.
In most children, these behavior changes will fade over time. Children who were directly exposed to the disaster can get upset again, and signs of behavior related to the event may return if they see or hear reminders of what happened. What you can do?
When parents and caregivers or other family members deal with the situation calmly and confidently, they can provide the best support for their children, whose reactions are influenced by the behavior they see. They also are sensitive to what they hear and perceive from their parent/caregiver and other important adults in their lives. The better prepared you are, the less distress you are likely to experience. The more control and confidence you feel, the more reassuring you may be during a disaster. This can help children cope.
Following a disaster children are most afraid that the event will happen again, someone close to them will be killed or injured, or they will be left alone or separated from their family. You can help them by:
Calmly sharing facts about the event and plans to keep them safe. If a young child asks questions about what happened, answer them simply. Do not go into as much detail as you would for an older child or adult. The amount of information children need and can use varies.
- Encouraging them to talk or express what they are feeling through their paintings or drawings.
- Listening to their concerns. Show that you understand those concerns and address the issues they raise.
- Giving them specific tasks to do. This lets them know they can help and can restore a sense of control. It also gives them more predictability about their family and community life.
- Spending extra time with them.
- Re-establishing daily routines for work, school, play, meals and rest.
- Understanding that children have a range of reactions to crises This is influenced by their age, maturity and life experience.
- Knowing when and how to get help for a child who continues to suffer, takes extreme risks, hurts him- or herself or threatens others.
- Monitoring and limiting your family's exposure to the media. News coverage of the event can bring out fear, confusion and anxiety among children and adults. This applies to large-scale disasters or terrorist events where lots of property was damaged and lives were lost. Watching images of an event over and over can cause younger children to believe that the event is occurring again and again. Parents and caregivers might want to discuss what is being shown on TV or the Internet about the disaster. Limiting your own exposure to programs that fuel worry also is a good idea.
- Using support networks. Parents and caregivers are almost always the best source of support for their children in difficult times. Thus, it is important for adults to understand their own feelings and to develop coping strategies. One way of doing this is to build and use social support systems that include family, friends, community organizations and agencies, faith-based institutions or other resources. This will help adults feel supported and also will help them manage their reactions better. In turn, they will be less distressed, more in control of their own thoughts and feelings and better able to support their children.
If a child continues to be very upset by what happened or if their reactions hurt their schoolwork or relationships at home or with friends, they may need extra help. You may want to have them talk with their primary care physician or a mental health provider who specializes in children's needs.
Source: American Red Cross and Center for Disease Control, Maintaining a Healthy State of Mind.