How do children react to disasters?

The common reactions to a disaster in most children will fade over time. Children directly exposed to a disaster can become upset again; behavior related to the event may return if they see or hear reminders of what happened. If children continue to be very upset, if their reactions hurt their schoolwork or relationships, then parents may want to talk to a professional or have their children to talk to a healthcare provider who specializes in children's needs.

  • For infants to children up to age six: Infants may become more cranky. They may cry more than usual or want to be held and cuddled more. Preschool and kindergarten-age 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.
  • For 7 to 10-year-olds: Older children who know about loss may feel sad, mad or afraid the event will happen again. Peers may share false information that parents or caregivers 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.
  • For preteens and teenagers: 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.
  • For special-needs children: Children who are ventilator-dependent, or are confined to a wheelchair or bed, may have even more pronounced reactions to threatened or actual terrorism. 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.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.