University of Illinois Extension
Disaster Resources - University of Illinois Extension

Children, Stress, and Natural Disasters
A Guide for Teachers

What Children May Be Experiencing

The experiences children have as a result of a disaster depend on the kind of disaster it was, whether there was forewarning and time to prepare, the extent of the impact on a community, and how much direct exposure children or their families might have had. However, there are two basic kinds of experiences that children who live through a disaster have: (1) the trauma of the disaster event itself; and (2) the changes and disruptions in day-to-day living caused by the disaster.

The Trauma of the Event

The most obvious experience that children might have during a disaster is experiencing or witnessing a frightening event or series of events. These might include the destruction of homes, property, or personal possessions; being personally injured or faced with physical danger; or witnessing the death, injury, or pain of others. This is sometimes more common in disasters that are sudden or unanticipated, such as earthquakes, tornadoes, or flash floods. However, even anticipated disasters (e.g., hurricanes) can be frightening for children. These disaster events are often short lived, however, other disasters (e.g., flooding) can often last a long time. In both cases, disasters often set off a chain of events that can cause changes in day-to- day living conditions and result in long-term difficulties.

Disruptions to Daily Life

Life might not return to normal quickly following a disaster. There may be changes in living conditions that cause changes in day-to-day activities -- including strains in the relationships between family members or between friends, changes in expectations that family members have for each other (along with changes in responsibilities) These disruptions in relationships, roles, and routines can make life unfamiliar or unpredictable, which can be unsettling or sometimes frightening for children.

Changes to living conditions that can cause difficulty include:

  • Having a home destroyed
  • Having to be relocated when a home is destroyed or damaged. This might mean:
    1. Living in temporary housing or with relatives or friends; possible crowding and tensions
    2. Moving to a new community, going to a new school; having to adjust to a new environment and make new friends
  • Being separated from from family members
  • Financial pressures from unmemployment or loss of family farm or business

Changes that disrupt relationships, roles, and routines include:

  • Not having parents physically or emotionally available following the disaster (because they are busy cleaning up or are preoccupied, distracted , or distressed by disaster- related difficulties)
  • Being expected to take on more adult roles (watch siblings, help with cleanup efforts, listen to parents' concerns and worries, etc.)
  • Not being able to spend time with friends or participating in activities, groups, hobbies, interests, or routines that children usually have (e.g., summer vacation, trips, etc.)

Pile-up of Stressors and Long-term Strains

The stresses of the disaster and its consequenes can begin to "pile up". Little hassles become difficult to deal with when there are other problems that also have to be faced. Difficulties that parents face can sometimes "filter down" and affect children in indirect ways. These pile-ups may lead to strains that continue long after the physical signs of destruction have been cleared away. The changes that can have the biggest effect on children are parental adjustment problems or strains in family relationships that may linger after the disaster, including:

  • Increased alcohol or drug use by family members
  • Increased conflict or violent behavior between family members, or between family members and others
  • Decreased physical and emotional availability of parents
  • Loss of children's social network or the opportunity to to participate in normal routines and activities.

Many of the negative effects of a disaster may be due to longer- term strains that were caused or exacerbated by the disaster. These daily strains can have a bigger impact on children's adjustment than the experience of the event itself. In other words, disruptions caused by disasters may:

  • add to difficulties children might have in handling the trauma of a disaster event,
  • create additional difficulties for children that have nothing to do with the traumatic event,
  • reduce the kinds of resources children have available to cope with stress.

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