Skip directly to search Skip directly to A to Z list Skip directly to navigation Skip directly to page options Skip directly to site content

Helping Children Cope with Emergencies

Regardless of your child’s age, he or she may feel upset or have other strong emotions after an emergency. Some children react right away, while others may show signs of difficulty much later. How children react or common signs of distress can vary according to age. Knowing how to help children cope after an emergency can help them stay healthy in future emergencies.

Friend comforting a friend

Children Face Unique Risks in an Emergency

Children are vulnerable in an emergency because they may not be able to communicate important information clearly. A child’s ability to communicate who they are and who their parents are depends on the child’s age and development level. Children with intellectual or developmental disabilities or long-standing health problems may need special support services, including medicine and medical equipment, which typically are not available in traditional shelters. In addition, children requiring medical services are not legally able to provide consent for treatment.

Children also face heightened risks in an emergency because of the following:

  • Developmental risks: Disruption to children’s schooling, housing, friendships, health care, and family networks can affect children’s ability to advance emotionally, socially, and academically.
  • Protection risks: Without adequate adult support and guidance, children may not receive the care, protection, shelter, and transportation they require when an emergency strikes. Children, separated from their parents or trusted adults, may be especially vulnerable to mistreatment. Rapid family reunification minimizes these risks to children.
  • Physical needs: Infants and young children in emergency shelters have different nutritional needs than adults and require age-appropriate supplies, such as baby formula, diapers, clothes, and a safe sleeping surface (for example, a portable crib).
  • Medical needs: Treating children requires specialized training, equipment, and medicines, and children are physically more susceptible to chemical, biological, and nuclear threats.

Factors that Influence the Emotional Impact on Children in Emergencies

The emotional impact of an emergency on a child depends on a child’s characteristics and experiences, the social and economic circumstances of the family and community, and the available resources in the surrounding environment. The following specific factors may affect a child’s emotional response:

  • Direct exposure to the emergency
  • Previous exposure to trauma
  • Belief that the child or a loved one may die
  • Separation from caregivers
  • Physical injury
  • How parents and caregivers respond
  • Inner resources of the family and the relation and communication patterns among family members
  • Repeated exposure to mass media coverage of the emergency and aftermath
  • Cultural differences
  • Community resilience

Additional Resources

Emergency Preparedness and You

Real Stories- Reunification Plans

 More Information on Helping Children Cope


American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)