Children’s reactions after a disaster can differ, depending on:
- age (younger children may be more vulnerable)
- the child’s specific experiences of the disaster, which may have included:
- death of parents or family members
- loss of significant others
- damage or destruction of home, neighbourhood, school or community
- loss of loved pets and possessions.
- the extent of the ongoing disruptions they experience after the disaster (e.g. not being able to go home, return to school or to usual life-routines, over-exposure to traumatic TV images of the disaster).
Children may have ongoing fears regarding safety, security and separation from parents.
These fears may present as follows:
- young children: regression, clinging, sleep difficulties
- older children: bravado, withdrawal, emotional problems, behavioural problems, sleep difficulties
- adolescents: acting out, caregiving, arousal, depression, drug use, sleep difficulties.
Children may experience grief at the losses that have occurred and show sadness or withdrawn behaviours, seek comfort from other family members, cling to attachment objects, ask questions repetitively.
- Young children: may not understand the finality of death, may feel abandoned.
- Older children: may ‘attach’ to others, seek security, experience guilt.
- Adolescents: may show a range of grieving emotions or denial, anger, guilt, pseudo maturity.
Children may develop trauma syndromes (e.g. post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)):
- becoming distressed, with sleep difficulties, irritability, lack of concentration
- displaying a lack of emotion, avoidance, withdrawal
- re-experiencing the disaster, including some repetitive play
- developmental regression.
Children may develop traumatic grief, this is a mixture of trauma and grief and is common in such circumstances.
Children are vulnerable to multiple stressors, Chemtob et al. (2008) have highlighted the particular vulnerabilities of children when there are multiple stressors.
Children may be quiet, good and compliant early after the disaster, until they regain some sense of a secure world, and only later show the effects of trauma (even six months or more afterwards).
Common symptom patterns include:
- increased fearfulness about any threat
- becoming clingy and displaying regressed behaviours
- becoming fearful of separation
- sleep difficulties
- general bodily complaints including stomach pains and headaches
- difficulties concentrating at school
- becoming withdrawn, sad and, in some cases, depressed
- displaying aggression and acting out.
Disasters may affect children’s development through the severity of the children’s experience, their reactions, and the degree to which they are able to be supported adequately.