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Helping Children Respond to Disaster

Volcanos photo Two hurricanes in a row, Harvey and Irma, devastated Texas, Florida and other states, causing physical and emotional damage to people, turning their lives upside down and in some cases ending them; and causing damage to property, including oil refineries and crops. However, perhaps the greatest toll was on children.

A child’s emotional response to a disaster is far greater than an adult’s. This is highlighted by an ongoing study of how children respond to disasters conducted by Betty Lai, a professor at Georgia State University.

Lau has studied how disasters affect children for several decades, monitoring the effects of both natural disasters like hurricanes and floods, and man-made disasters like wars. “I’ve found that most kids will emerge from these experiences just fine,” she reported in a recent article. “But for a small minority, the effects can linger for years.” In studying the effects of Hurricanes Andrew in 1991 and Katrina in 2005 on children, they found that 7l% to 80% of children were able to bounce back with a year or two if their lives resumed a normal routine. That means 20% to 29% were not able to bounce back and their symptoms lingered.

What were the symptoms and what caused them to linger in the group of children that were not able to bounce back? Lai cited symptoms such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. She offered two causes for children not bouncing back. One cause was the severity of the stressors children experienced. Did the child lose her home? Did the child witness a relative or friend or pet being injured or dying? The more severe the stressor and the younger the child, the greater the effect would be on the child.

The second cause of children not bouncing back as quickly and symptoms lingering had to do with whether or not the children received adequate emotional support from their parents and other adults. Professor Lai noted, “Surprisingly, adults are not good judges of what children experience during disasters. In fact, research suggests that parents are not great judges of child behavior and feelings generally.”

Lai suggested that parents look for signs of lingering distress. “Changes in academic performance, how often they’re seeing friends, or less enjoyment of favorite activities can all be warning signs that children may be struggling after a disaster.” Children need lots of reassurance from parents during such times, and if parents are not properly tuned into their children but are, instead, absorbed with their own distress, they will not be able to help their children recover.

Carl Rogers, a humanistic psychologist prominent in the 1960s, came up with a theory that suggested that children have basic needs, and if these basic needs are not met, they will not grow up in the healthiest way—that is, they will not reach their full potential as human beings. One of the needs was the need for the status quo—that is, children want things to stay the same. Things like a parent being fired from a job, moving to another town, or the divorce of the parents, can have traumatic effects on children because they interfere with this need for the status quo.

It is similar to the needs of an apple tree. Its basic needs are food, water, sunshine, and carbon dioxide. If it doesn’t receive an adequate fulfillment of these needs, the tree will not be able to actualize itself and grow the 157 apples it is expected to produce.

Children’s need for the status quo is an important consideration in terms of the effect of disasters on them. Disasters represent the deepest deviation from the status quo, and hence children’s need for their emotions to be understood and taken care of during a disaster is very high. A disaster such as Irma shakes up a child to his or her very core, provoking thoughts and feelings about the stability of life and the immediacy of his or her own death.

I agree with Lai that parents are in general not in tune with their children’s emotions. In the cases of child therapy that I have done over the years, I have found the parents in nearly all the cases were not in touch with how their children were feeling or how they were impacting their children’s feelings. In many cases they didn’t want to know. Often they viewed their children as having been “born that way,” and when anything other than that was suggested to them, they became defensive.

Children need for parents to be parents—to put their child’s needs above their own. This is never as important as during and following a disaster such as the recent hurricanes.

Helping Children Respond to Disaster



APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2018). Helping Children Respond to Disaster. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 18, 2019, from


Last updated: 3 May 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 3 May 2018
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