The Impact of Disasters on Children: Tips for Spotting Trouble


It is easy to think of children as just “little adults,” but children have their own set of issues and needs that many adults overlook. Children’s brains are still developing, making them vulnerable to longer-term impact in areas such as the regulation of emotions, attention, and memory after experiencing a disaster.

Many times, traumatized children are unable to articulate how they feel and long-dormant issues can often go untreated. Some children may even blame themselves or others for the disaster; for not being able to prevent it or keep themselves and their family “safe.”

When caring for a child touched by disaster, it is important not to make generic assumptions about how the child was impacted by the disaster. How a child interprets what is going on around them is highly individualized. Some children show a striking resilience in the face of strife and hardship while others are significantly more vulnerable to challenging circumstances.

It is important for the adults in charge of a child’s care to take the time to evaluate their child’s well-being by observing and talking to them about the situation. A parent or guardian’s intuition regarding the idiosyncrasies of their child is an invaluable tool for detecting problems early on.

Be a Buffer

Keeping calm in a crisis can be extremely hard to do. Even very young children are able to pick-up on subtle body language and how you compose yourself in times of stress. If not in immediate danger, try and adhere to the old mantra of “we stayed strong for the children.”

While you may understand the full extent of the challenges you, your family, or community is facing, your children may not. Exposing them to an unfiltered account of your situation, depending on their age and maturity, is likely unnecessary and potentially detrimental to their ability to weather the hardship.

If certain facts are not pertinent to their ability to safely make it through the disaster, hold off on exposing them to the more unsettling realities. Remember, you can always sit them down and have a frank discussion when things calm down. Lastly, provide comfort and the best environment you can for the child. Even if you are out of immediate danger, if your daily lives are going to be affected for an extended period of time, be sure to re-establish what routines you can. Fostering as much of a sense of normalcy and stability, under the circumstances, will go a long way.

Symptoms to Watch For

When a parent or guardian recognizes that there may be an issue with their child as a result of a disaster, it is important for them to seek assistance. In many disaster situations, mental health professionals are made available to people affected immediately following the incident. However, many children have an age-appropriate response to a disaster.

If a child has witnessed a traumatic event, they may not deal with those issues until they become more mentally mature. Therefore, issues and symptoms may only manifest themselves long after the danger has subsided. Remember, a child is not a small adult. What may only be a nuisance or highly inconvenient to an adult may be interpreted as devastating or traumatic to a child.

After experiencing a disaster or prolonged crisis, changes in your child’s behavior may be indicative of deeper problems. Here are a few things to watch for:

  • fear and worry;
  • sadness;
  • aggression;
  • low self-esteem;
  • self-harm;
  • drug/alcohol abuse;
  • out of place sexual-behavior;
  • night terrors;

For a full list of complications that your child may face in the case of a disaster, such as the gas well blowout at Aliso Canyon, visit our Porter Ranch Gas Well Blowout lawsuit page.

PTSD may be familiar to you as something soldiers suffer from after returning from war. But people from all walks of life, with any number of experiences, can experience the disorder – including your child after living through a disaster. PTSD leads the sufferer to re-experience traumatic events. This may manifest itself as avoidance, numbness, and a state of high emotional alertness. Don’t assume that just because your child is young and still growing they will be able to just “get over” it or “grow out” of it.

Getting Help

There are various types of assistance that can effectively help your child deal with trauma. Psychological care is not just performed by psychologists. Alternatives such as social programs and involvement in a faith-based community have proven to be effective to deal with some of the issues faced by children who have experienced a disaster. However, when symptoms are severe and chronic, seeking the assistance of a licensed mental-health professional is advisable.

You are the first line of defense in preventing, identifying, and treating the negative mental-health implications of your child’s disaster experiences. Remember, what may not be traumatic for you might be for a child. Keep the lines of communication open with your child long after the danger has abated. Hopefully, you will not need to know any of these tips but, as any parent knows, there is nothing we wouldn’t do for our children. Knowing what to do if there is an issue is always better than not knowing we need to do anything at all.