such as an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, fire, flood, or
violent acts 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.
children see and understand their parents' responses are 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,
and also stress their abilities to cope with the situation.
reaction also depends on how much destruction and/or death
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 difficulties.
age affects how the child will respond to the disaster. For
example, six-year-olds may show their worries about a catastrophe
by refusing to attend school, whereas adolescents may minimize
their concerns, but argue more with parents and show a decline
in school performance. It is important to explain the event
in words the child can understand.
a disaster, people may develop Posttraumatic 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 re-experience the traumatic
event. Children often relive the trauma through repetitive
play. In young children, upsetting dreams of the traumatic
event may change into nightmares of monsters, of rescuing
others, or of threats to self or others. PTSD rarely appears
during the trauma itself. Though its symptoms can occur soon
after the event, the disorder often surfaces several months
or even years later.
should be alert to these changes in a child's behavior:
to return to school and "clinging" behavior, including shadowing
the mother or father around the house
fears related to the catastrophe (such as fears about being
permanently separated from parents)
disturbances such as nightmares, screaming during sleep
and bedwetting, persisting more than several days after
of concentration and irritability
problems, for example, misbehaving in school or at home
in ways that are not typical for the child
complaints (stomachaches, headaches, dizziness) for which
a physical cause cannot be found
from family and friends, sadness, listlessness, decreased
activity, and preoccupation with the events of the disaster
advice or treatment for children affected by a disaster--especially
those who have witnessed destruction, injury or death--can
help prevent or minimize PTSD. Parents who are concerned about
their children can ask their pediatrician or family doctor
to refer them to a child and adolescent psychiatrist.
information see Facts for Families:
#4 The Depressed Child
#8 Children and Grief
#34 Children's Sleep Problems
#66 Helping Teenagers with Stress, and
#70 Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.
See also: Your Child (1998 Harper Collins)/Your
Adolescent (1999 Harper Collins).
#36 Updated 01/00