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Psychological Effects of Disaster on Children

What are psychological effects of disaster on children?

When your child lives through a disaster, her physical, mental, and emotional health can be disturbed. There are normal reactions to disasters, but medical help may be necessary when certain reactions last longer than normally expected. Speak with your family doctor to help your family and child cope with the effects of a disaster. The goal is to recover and develop well after the disaster.

Disaster defined

Disasters are unexpected events that are not part of the normal human experience. Disasters are disturbing enough to induce stress in any person, including children and adolescents. A disaster can be either natural or human-caused.

Examples of natural disasters:

  • earthquakes
  • hurricanes
  • floods

Examples of human-caused disasters:

  • airplane crashes
  • major chemical leaks
  • nuclear reactor accidents
  • terrorist attacks

Disasters can disrupt a child’s life in many ways. The buildings of her home or school may be damaged or destroyed. She may lose access to electricity or clean water. She may lose friends or family members or see disturbing images around her or on the television. Her routine may be disrupted. These changes can have a harmful effect on her psychological health. Your family doctor will help you monitor your child’s health and ensure that your child will recover from the experience of disaster.

Signs and symptoms

Common reactions of children and adolescents to a disaster

The first response phase after a disaster is marked by emotions of fear, shock, anxiety, grief, or relief that other family members survived. A young child or adolescent may also show signs of wanting to help others and be of service.

The second response phase after a disaster may occur several weeks after the disaster. Your child may become more clingy, irritable, or needy. Some children may revert to younger developmental levels, such as bedwetting or fear of the dark. Other children may experience physical symptoms such as a change in appetite, constipation, headaches, or poor sleep. Anger, hostility, and violence toward other children may be shown during play. Some children may use play as a time to re-enact details of the disaster. This is a coping mechanism. They may also display “magical thinking” by changing the end result of the disaster. Some children may also think they are responsible for the disaster. Feelings of guilt may ensue.

Your child or adolescent may have strong feelings of dissatisfaction or bitterness when there are delays in restoring structure in their lives. Other children may withdraw from social circumstances, or lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. Some doctors say these are normal responses within a few weeks of the disaster.

The third phase is the reconstructive stage. Children and their family members seek to rebuild their lives. This stage may take several months or years.

Gender differences

Psychologists have found that girls and boys can react to disasters in different ways. Girls verbally express their distress more easily than boys. They may ask more questions and have more recurring thoughts about the disaster. Boys express more anger and violent behaviours. Boys may also take longer to recover.


If your child has suffered the loss of a loved one, or even a tremendous change in their lives, grief is a common response. Usually the grief will be most intense immediately after the disaster and then subside over the next few weeks. Grief and mourning of a loved one usually lasts 6 to 12 months. This is a normal reaction. If your child does not express sadness or a sense of loss, seek medical assistance. Also speak to a doctor if your child’s mourning lasts longer than expected.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Many children may show the signs and symptoms of PTSD immediately after the disaster. Few children develop the full disorder. Signs and symptoms of PTSD include:

  • recurrent re-experiencing of the traumatic event through play, nightmares, or flashbacks
  • increased irritability, poor concentration, or regression to younger development stages (such as bedwetting in an older child)
  • a strong startle reaction
  • lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • sense of hopeless future

What a doctor can do to help your child with psychological trauma after a disaster

Your child’s doctor will help you assess your child’s progress and recovery. Your child’s doctor will monitor your child’s coping abilities and ensure that your child is stable emotionally. If your child is not coping well, the doctor may help determine whether therapy is necessary.

What you can do to help your child

Take care of yourself

Parental adjustment to the disaster is an important factor in the child’s adjustment. Parental response to a disaster relates with that of the child. Ensure that you are dealing with your own psychological trauma. Seek medical assistance if necessary.

Provide support

The child and the family can help recover from the trauma together. Encourage open communication and support.

Listen to your child

The goal is to be a source of support and safety for your child. Listen to your child as they express their fears and concerns. Try to emphasize your child’s bravery and courage.

Resume routine

After the disaster, try to resume your daily routine as quickly as possible. Children do well with schedules. Routines are comforting because they allow the child to have realistic expectations of their day. Eat meals at regular times. Enforce regular bedtimes. Assign tasks and chores to school-age children and adolescents. Some children may express an interest in volunteering others in an effort to find a purpose. Try to limit your child or adolescent's exposure to disturbing or violent images on television or the Internet.

When to seek medical assistance

See your child’s regular doctor if:

  • certain regressive or destructive behaviours last longer than one month
  • your child has long-term sleep disturbances, shows a lack of motivation, becomes more withdrawn or dependent, or has recurrent anxiety

Key points

  • When your child lives through a disaster, a child’s physical, mental, and emotional health can be disturbed.
  • Medical help may be necessary when certain reactions last longer than normally expected.
  • The goal is to recover and develop well after the disaster.
  • A disaster can be either natural or human-caused.
  • You can help your child by staying healthy, providing support by listening to your child, and resuming routine.

Mark Feldman, MD, FRCPC


AboutKidsHealth. Casualties of war: Canadian children and vicarious PTSD: Last accessed Dec 2009.

AboutKidsHealth. Can a child be harmed by media exposure to horrific events such as the earthquake in Haiti? Last accessed February 2010.  

Psychosocial Issues for Children and Families in Disasters: A Guide For The Primary Care Physician. Last accessed Dec 2009.