University of Illinois Extension
Disaster Resources - University of Illinois Extension

Children, Stress, and Natural Disasters
A Guide for Teachers

Children's Responses to Disasters

Children react to stress in different ways, however, there are some common behaviors that you might see in the classroom as a result of a disaster or disaster-related disruptions. Children of different ages respond to stressful circumstances in different ways. For example regressive behavior is more likely among younger children (under 7 years), while acting out and withdrawal is more common among older children. The main thing to remember, however, is that the best indicator of distress is unusual changes in behavior or appearance. Some common responses to disasters include:

Signs of Distress

  • Regressive behavior (acting like a younger child): thumbsucking; loss of toilet training skills; separation difficulties (crying, fussing, or clinging when parents leave); difficulty in making transitions; increased whining, dependency, or "neediness"
  • disaster-related fears (rain, thunder, wind, etc.)
  • difficulty sleeping, nightmares
  • lack of emotional expression
  • looking sad or depressed, crying
  • being unusually quiet or withdrawn
  • apathy, being uninterested in things that were usually enjoyed
  • complaints of headaches, stomachaches, or other symptoms of illness
  • acting out, aggression, disobedience, talking back, destructiveness, stealing
  • outbursts of anger, irritability, sudden changes in mood
  • distractibility, poor concentration, attention problems, restlessness, daydreaming
  • lethargy, fatigue, sleeping in class
  • increased absences or tardiness
  • declining school performance
  • changes in relationships with peers (suddenly spending a lot more or a lot less time with friends)

Although symptoms may result from trauma caused by direct exposure to disaster events, they may also be due to disruptions in relationships, roles, and routines caused by the disaster. It is important to note that while symptoms displayed by children may be a response to a disaster or disaster-related disruptions, they may also reflect conditions that were present before the disaster. The stresses and strains caused by a disaster may have revealed or exacerbated pre-existing difficulties.

Who is at Risk?

In general, children who are most likely to be affected by disasters are those who:

  • directly experienced or had the greatest exposure to the disaster (suffered an injury, had a family member die or get injured, felt they were in physical danger; or witnessed a frightening event)
  • experienced major disruptions in relationships (especially within the family), roles, and routines that result in long- term changes and strains
  • had psychological or academic difficulties prior to the disaster

Identifying Children Who May Need More Help

Although many of the symptoms listed above are considered normal responses to stress, children should be referred to mental health professionals for evaluation if:

  • symptoms signal a very unusual change in behavior or appearance, and persist for more than 2 weeks
  • several different kinds of symptoms are seen (e.g., appears sad, complains of headaches, and sleeps in class)
  • symptoms are seen in different settings (in different classes, outside of school, at home, with peers)
  • the child threatens or actually tries to harm themself
  • the child shows signs of abuse or neglect

Any concerns or suspicions should be discussed with others on the school staff before implementing the school's referral procedure.

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