Natural disasters can be hard to explain to children who are not yet at the developmental age to understand the science behind the disaster.   Natural disasters can impact children’s mental health in differing levels of intensity.  Issues accompanying a disaster such as a flood, tornado or hurricane are complex and varied.  A family may be uprooted in more ways than one.  Children can be significantly impacted by the disaster as well as the aftermath that might ensue.

Children’s Mental Health Issues Include Stress Related Disorders

As to be expected stress related mental health disorders are the most prevalent in children exposed to environmental disasters.  Factors such as loss of a family member, homelessness, injuries, or proximity to the disaster all have an impact on the severity of the feelings children experience.  The most common diagnosis in children after a natural disaster is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).   Predictably, children who have lost parents report with the most severe PTSD symptoms.  Symptoms of PTSD in children include:[1]

  • re-experiencing through nightmares
  • flashbacks
  • avoidance such as loss of interest in pleasurable activities
  • hyper-arousal manifested in ways such as trouble sleeping or concentrating

Children can become angry, fearful, withdrawn, and depressed after a natural disaster.  Floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, hurricanes etc. can shatter a child’s sense of security.  Experiencing such an event can skew the belief system of a child’s view of the future and his or her control over it.  Children may have difficulty concentrating or sleeping; they may become hyper-vigilant especially in their efforts to avoid re-experiencing an event.

Research has shown that even a year later, many kids still experience certain levels of stress related to the catastrophic event.[2]  Their sense of security and feelings of ability of self or caregivers to control a possible future event is still lacking.  Research also supports the theory that repeated media exposure to the event can hinder a child’s emotional recovery from a natural cataclyism.[2]

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Prevention and Coping Strategies for Helping Kids

Research suggests that social support is helpful in reducing the symptomology of PTSD in children months following a natural disaster.[2]  Caregivers are an integral part of the social support needed by kids after a catastrophic event.   Parents, teachers, and friends, can provide opportunities for children to express their feelings in a safe environment and can further assist by reestablishing routines. 

While children most likely receive some level of crisis intervention after a natural disaster; ongoing therapy may be indicated for some kids.   Individual therapy may be beneficial, but group processing is also often beneficial for children.   Play therapy is one method that works well with younger children.  Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is often used with older kids.

Helping Kids be Prepared for Natural Disasters; photo courtesy of FEMA, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: photo courtesy of FEMA, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Some interventions to help children can be implemented before a natural disaster strikes.  Practical strategies that can assist children include:

  • have a disaster preparedness plan
  • drill for emergencies

Both of these strategies can instill a sense of control for children.  Discussions about various possible  disasters that can occur and how to be proactive can help the child’s confidence.  These types of strategies can reduce the impact of the natural disaster on the mental health of children.


The copyright of the article Natural Disasters and Effects on Children’s Mental Health is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

Helping kids cope during natural disasters