Clinical Reference Systems: Pediatric Advisor 10.0
Helping Children After a Disaster
A catastrophe such as an earthquake, hurricane, tornado,
fire, or flood is frightening to children and adults alike.
It is important to acknowledge the frightening parts of the
disaster when talking with a child about it. Falsely
minimizing the danger will not end a child's concerns.
Several factors affect a child's response to a disaster.
The way children see and understand their parents' response
is very important. Children are aware of their parents'
worries most of the time but they are particularly sensitive
during a crisis. Parents should admit their concerns to
their children. They should also stress their abilities to
cope with the situation. It is important to explain the
event in words the child can understand.
A child's reaction also depends on how much destruction 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
A child's age affects how the child will respond to the
disaster. For example, 6-year-olds may show their concerns
about a catastrophe by refusing to attend school.
Adolescents may minimize their concerns but argue more with
parents and show a decline in school performance.
After 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
reexperience 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
themselves or others.
PTSD rarely appears during the trauma itself. Although 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 in their child:
- refusal to return to school and clinging behavior
(shadowing the mother or father around the house)
- persistent fears related to the catastrophe, such as
fears about being permanently separated from parents
- sleep disturbances, such as nightmares, screaming during
sleep, and bedwetting, that last more than several days
after the event
- loss of concentration and irritability
- behavior problems such as misbehaving in school or at
home in ways that are not typical for the child
- physical complaints such as stomachaches, headaches, or
dizziness for which a physical cause cannot be found
- withdrawal from family and friends, listlessness,
decreased activity, or preoccupation with the events of
Professional advice or treatment for children affected by a
disaster--especially for those who have witnessed
destruction, injury or death--can help prevent or minimize
PTSD. Parents who are concerned about their child should
talk about it with their child's physician.