Helping Children Cope With Disasters

As a result of the September 11, 2001 horrific USA terrorist attacks and subsequent events such as school shootings and disasters, many parents wonder what tell their children about the such tragic events. As compared to earlier times, these events are now shown live on TV and replayed constantly. It is difficult to imagine that children have not seen shocking or violent footage or at least have not heard about the terrifying events from others. The closer to the disaster a child is, the more he or she will be affected. Of course children in close to the disaster area or who have suffered personal injury or a loss of a parent or sibling need special attention and support from a psychologist and other specialists. The way children and adolescents react to disasters depends on individual circumstances such as the life situation at home pre-disaster, the age and gender.

This article will review the effects of witnessing violence or disasters on children. This section will also describe what parents and other caregivers can do to help ease their shock and fears as well as how to support children during trying and tragic times. Obviously, children directly affected will need special attention. However children world-wide, (especially in North America) who thanks to vivid 24 hour a day live TV and media coverage, will also be affected and traumatized (to a lesser degree of course) by the horrifying and tragic events or disasters. Although the 9-11 event sparked the writing of this article, the facts and information pertain to children who have witnessed any type of disaster be it natural, such as earthquakes or floods or human-caused. As one would imagine, human-caused disasters such as the Attack on The USA, school shootings will result in higher levels of stress in children. This stress may be experienced well after the disaster and by children not actually directly involved in the event.

Reactions to a disaster or catastrophe

According to the Center for Mental Health Services Administration(USA), there are three stages of reactions to a disaster:

FIRST STAGE(During and immediately after a disaster):

  • Disbelief,
  • Denial,
  • Anxiety and
  • Grief

SECOND STAGE(Lasting a few days to several weeks after disaster):

  • Clinginess,
  • Appetite changes,
  • Behaving younger than age(regression),
  • Sleep problems,
  • Apathy(not caring for anything),
  • Anger, and
  • Violent or delinquent behavior


This stage is referred to as reconstruction or re-building which can take up to several years or decades, when the life of the families are rebuilt-obviously this is more applicable to children who lost family members in a disaster.

What is also important to know is that reactions to disaster differ not only depending on age but also on gender. For example, boys take longer to recover and display more aggressive and violent behaviors. Girls however are more upset or distressed, talk about their feelings more, have more questions and have more frequent thoughts about the disaster itself than boys.

Effects of disasters on children:


  • Withdrawal
  • Playing violent games or activities
  • Apathy(not caring for anything)


  • School Problems
  • Anxiety
  • Somatic complaints(physical complaints such as headaches without medical cause)
  • Anger


  • Risk Taking( drugs, alcohol, speeding)
  • Somatic complaints
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Hostile or violent behaviors

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

For the most part, it is natural to experience a variety of symptoms/reactions as a result of a disaster or tragedy during or immediately after it occurs. In most case, with time things do get better. However, if symptoms persist longer than usual or expected, this may signify Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Not all children will develop PTSD. PTSD usually occurs in those children or adolescents who have actually witnessed injury, destruction or death. Regardless of the situation, if any of the following signs or symptoms last beyond the initial expected shock period(second stage up to several weeks post disaster), then professional help/counseling should be sought:

  • School refusal
  • Separation anxiety(always being with or hanging on to a parent)
  • Sleep problems including nightmares, bedwetting which persist longer than a few days after the event
  • Decreased ability to concentrate
  • Increased irritability
  • New or uncharacteristic behavior problems
  • Somatic symptoms(physical symptoms with out obvious medical cause)
  • Withdrawal
  • Sadness
  • Listlessness
  • A disruptive pre occupation with the disaster events

How to help children cope with a major disaster

The key issue is communication. The more you discuss the events with the child the better. Here are some more tips:

  • Adults should acknowledge and not deny that an event took place.
  • Keep in mind that children react (mimic) like their parents: calm parents = calm kids.
  • Children need to be told that they are safe and that what they have seen on TV occurred in another area or location.
  • Children should be assured that their parents and the local authorities have done everything to keep them safe.
  • Watch out for worrisome signs suggestive of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
  • Do not let your children watch too much TV, as over-exposure to the same images will be very traumatic.
  • Do not let your children watch these events alone. And when watching a tragic event or disaster on TV with them, answer their questions as confidently as possible. Remember that the key here is to be reassuring, comforting and supportive.
  • Discourage the “revenge” sentiment, by explaining to them that this will not achieve anything but rather do more harm.
  • It is important to return to your usual family and other activities and routines as soon as possible.

The above suggestions apply to teachers and other caregivers as well. Parents should discuss any related concerns and work with other school or day care staff when dealing with their children who have witnessed or experienced a disaster. If you are concerned, get help for your child or family. With the proper support and treatment from a doctor, psychiatrist, or other qualified mental/social health professionals, the situation can improve.

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Pediatrician DR.PAUL Roumeliotis is certified by the American Board of Pediatrics and Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. The information provided above is designed to be an educational aid only. It is not intended to replace the advice and care of your child’s physician, nor is it intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment. If you suspect that your child has a medical condition always consult a physician.