Children's reactions to disaster and trauma may
seem very different from those of the adults around them. Like adults,
children need to make sense of things that happen; their families can
help them to understand, and to reestablish trust, hope, and a sense of
Children (0-18 years) have their own ways of dealing with trauma,
according to their age and stage of development. Their reactions are
difficult to predict and/or may not show up for some time.
Parents/Families and caregivers are not always sure of the best way to
help. This tip sheet outlines the common reactions of children who
experience disasters and traumatic events, or hear about them happening
to family or friends, and suggests ways to support children and their
The family is the most
important part of a child's life. Parent(s), foster families and other
caregivers impart a sense of security and confidence to children. These
adults are critical role models and are vital to helping build a child's
resilience. How a disaster will impact a child depends to a large
extent on how their caregivers react to it. Often, this is more
important than what happens to the children themselves. Adults can help
by sorting out their own reactions and feelings. Children's reactions
can seem out of keeping with their experiences; they may be reacting to
family members' distress.
Children (even infants and toddlers) typically know much more than
adults give them credit for. They are aware of many things they cannot
put into words. Children think about things a great deal even when they
are not talking about them, but they can only put them in perspective
with adults' help.
Children need to make sense of things that happen. Younger children
often don't have all the facts, and their thinking is not yet mature, so
they use imagination to fill in the gaps. Teenagers may have a more
mature understanding of events, but they also lack the ability to
process traumatic events without family and peer support systems.
Children of all ages often have misunderstandings about disaster
experiences, which they may keep to themselves, especially if the
experiences are frightening. What children imagine is often more
frightening than what really happened. Or, they find it difficult to
reestablish trust, as sense of security and hope.
Common Reactions of Children and Youth to Traumatic Events
• Birth through 2 years:
Infants and toddlers do not have the words to describe the events or
their feelings. However, they can retain memories of particular sights,
sounds, or smells. Infants may react to trauma by being irritable,
crying more than usual, or wanting to be held and cuddled. The biggest
influence on children of this age is how their parents cope. As children
get older, their play may involve acting out elements of the traumatic
event that occurred several years in the past and was seemingly
• Preschool - 3 through 6 years:
Preschool children often feel helpless and powerless in the face of an
overwhelming event. Because of their age and small size, they lack the
ability to protect themselves or others. As a result, they feel intense
fear and insecurity about being separated from caregivers. Preschoolers
cannot grasp the concept of permanent loss. They can see consequences as
being reversible or permanent. In the weeks following a traumatic
event, preschoolers' play activities may reenact the incident or the
disaster over and over again.
• School age - 7 through 10 years:
The school-age child has the ability to understand the permanence of
loss. Some children become intensely preoccupied with the details of a
traumatic event and want to talk about it continually. The preoccupation
can interfere with the child's concentration at school, and academic
performance may decline. At school, children may hear inaccurate
information from peers. They may display a wide range of reactions -
sadness, generalized fear, or specific fears of the disaster happening
again, guilt over action or inaction during the disaster, anger that the
event was not prevented, or fantasies of playing rescuer.
• Pre-adolescence to adolescence - 11 through 18 years:
As children grow older, they develop a more sophisticated understanding
of disaster events. Their responses are more similar to adults'
responses. Teenagers may become involved in dangerous, risk-taking
behaviors, such as reckless driving, or alcohol or drug use. Others can
become fearful of leaving home and avoid previous levels of activities.
Much of adolescence is focused on moving out into the world. After a
trauma, the view of the world can seem more dangerous and unsafe. A
teenager may feel overwhelmed by intense emotions and yet feel unable to
discuss them with others. Teenagers may feel more comfortable seeking
peer support than that of family or faith community leaders.
Meeting the Emotional Needs of Children and Youth
reactions are influenced by the behavior, thoughts, and feelings of
adults. Parents and caregivers need to encourage their children to share
their thoughts and feelings about the disaster. Clarify
misunderstandings about risk and danger by listening to their concerns
and answering questions. Caregivers should maintain a sense of calm by
validating children's concerns and perceptions and discuss concrete
plans for safety.
Parents/caregivers should listen to what a child is saying. If a
young child is asking questions about the event, answer them without the
elaboration needed for an older child or adult. Some children are
comforted by knowing more or less information than others; decide what
level of information a particular child needs. If a young child has
difficulty expressing feelings, invite the child to draw a picture or
tell a story of what happened. Teenagers should be encouraged to speak
candidly. NOTE: Adolescent youth are intuitive and have a low tolerance
for adults withholding information from them.
Try to understand what is causing anxieties and fears. Be aware that following a disaster, children are most afraid that:
• The event will happen again.
• Someone close to them will be killed or injured.
• They will be left alone or separated from the family.
Reassuring Children and Youth After a Disaster
Suggestions to help families/caregivers to reassure children/youth include the following:
• Hug or touch children/youth, in an age-appropriate manner. Personal contact is reassuring.
• Calmly provide factual information about the disaster and current plans for ensuring their safety along with recovery plans.
• Encourage them to talk about their feelings.
• Spend extra time with them, such as at bedtime or mealtime.
• Re-establish daily routines for work, school, play, meals, and rest - as well as worship and prayer life.
Give children specific chores to help them feel they are helping to
restore family and community life; teenagers may find it helpful to
volunteer in age/skill-appropriate relief and recovery efforts.
• Praise and recognize responsible behavior and willingness to discuss disaster experiences.
• Model sharing feelings, but be careful not to "over-share" adult information.
• Understand that children/youth will have a range of reactions to disasters, most are "normal" reactions to abnormal events.
• Encourage children/youth to help update their family's disaster plan.
Families can create a reassuring environment by following the steps
above, as appropriate. However, if any child continues to exhibit
stress, if the reactions worsen over time, or if they cause interference
with daily behavior at school, at home, or with other relationships, it
may be appropriate to talk to a mental health professional.
Parents/caregivers can get professional help from a child's primary care
physician or a mental health provider specializing in children's needs,
or through a teacher or faith community leader. Many communities will
also have disaster mental health services for referral.
Preparing for disaster helps everyone in the family accept the fact
that disasters will and do happen, and provides an opportunity to
identify and collect the resources needed to meet basic needs after
disaster. Preparation helps; when people feel prepared, they cope
better, and so do children.