Children and Disasters

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It's important to remember that some children may never show distress, while others may not give evidence of being upset for several weeks or even months after an emergency. Other children may not show a change in behavior, but may still need your help.

Children may exhibit the following behaviors after a disaster

  • Be upset over the loss of a favorite toy, blanket, etc., which is important to them.
  • Change from being quiet, obedient and caring to loud, noisy and aggressive, or change from being outgoing to shy and afraid.
  • Develop night-time fears (nightmares, fear of the dark or sleeping alone).
  • Be afraid the event will reoccur.
  • Become easily upset.
  • Lose trust in adults. After all, their adults were not able to control the disaster.
  • Revert to younger behavior (bed wetting, thumb sucking).
  • Want to stay close to parents. Refuse to go to school or daycare.
  • Feel they caused the disaster because of something they said or did.
  • Become afraid of wind, rain or sudden loud noises.
  • Have symptoms of illness, such as headaches, vomiting or fever.
  • Worry about where they and their family will live.

Things parents can do to help their children:

  • Talk with the children about how they are feeling. Assure them that it's OK to have those feelings.
  • Help children learn to use words that express their feelings, such as "happy", "sad", or "angry."
  • Children should not be expected to be brave or tough. Tell them it's OK to cry.
  • Don't give children more information than they can handle about the disaster.
  • Assure fearful children you will be there to care for them; consistently reassure them.
  • Go back to former routines as soon as possible. Maintain a regular schedule.
  • Reassure children that the disaster was not their fault.
  • Let children have some control, such as choosing clothing or what meal to have for dinner.
  • Re-establish contact with extended family.
  • Help your children learn to trust adults again by keeping promises you make.
  • Help your children regain faith in the future by making plans.
  • Get needed health care as soon as possible.
  • Spend extra time with the children at bedtime.
  • Make sure children eat healthy meals and get enough rest.
  • Allow special privileges for a short period of time, such as leaving the light on when they go to bed.
  • Find ways to emphasize to your children that you love them.
  • Allow children time to grieve losses.
  • Develop positive anniversary activities to commemorate the event. These may bring tears, but they are also a time to celebrate survival and the ability to get back to a normal life.

Other languages. (All files are PDF.)

DOH Pub 821-008
Revised - March 2008
Reviewed annually

This document was produced in cooperation with the Emergency Management Division of the Washington State Military Department.