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Psychological Impact of Natural Disasters in Children/Families

By Andres G. Viana, Ph.D., Candice A. Alfano, Ph.D., and Carla Sharp, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology

September 6, 2017

Living through a hurricane can be a frightening experience for anyone, including children. Such events are generally considered “traumatic” (versus just dangerous or scary) if the child or his/her loved ones faced risk of physical harm and/or experienced some form of loss (e.g., loss of personal belongings). However, hurricanes affect children very differently. Age, availability of support from others, and specific experiences during and after a hurricane all play a role in shaping a child’s responses. Children who faced the highest levels of threat during the storm or who have been in a hurricane or flood previously may experience the strongest emotional reactions in the immediate aftermath of a storm. Still, reactions differ greatly from child to child and it is important for parents to remember that a wide range of emotions, including strong emotions that change from day to day, is considered normal in the days and week after a hurricane.

Parents should monitor children closely over the coming days, weeks, and months. Different emotional reactions are to be expected but should also lessen with time and support. The specific responses that children display will depend in large part on their age. Young children below the age of 6 years may experience an increase in nightmares, fears of being separated from family members, fear of thunder and lightning, temper tantrums or emotional outbursts, bedwetting, and changes in appetite. Older children may experience feelings of guilt or hopelessness, sleep difficulties, anxiety and safety worries, difficulty concentrating, hyperarousal, and fear that a hurricane will happen again. In order to understand how your child is feeling and offer support, it is important to communicate with them on a regular basis. Here are some specific steps parents can take to help their children cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey:

  • Create a regular time and place for your child to talk with you about his/her feelings or worries. It can be helpful to pick a quiet place away from distractions. Try to avoid talking before bedtime however, because your child may have trouble sleeping after discussing upsetting events.
  • Young children may request to co-sleep, avoid separating from parents, or become more ‘clingy’ than usual. It is perfectly appropriate to temporarily provide little ones with these extra comforts to help them feel safe.
  • Some children may feel bad or guilty after the event, and experience trouble expressing emotions and thoughts. Let them know that all thoughts and emotions are OK right now and that they do not need to feel guilty about having strong or difficult emotions.
  • Children may also blame themselves for what happened. Let them know they are in no way responsible for what happened.
  • Reassure children that they are safe. Even if they experience a major loss (e.g., their home, toys), let them know that they are now safe and that the likelihood of a similar event happening to them again is very low. Discuss steps you and your community are taking to ensure safety.

Most of all, it is also important to realize that not all children who experience an event like Hurricane Harvey will develop emotional problems or post-traumatic stress. In fact, the majority of children who live through a hurricane are resilient, successfully adapt to changes that result from a hurricane, and do not develop long-term problems. Yet, some children who live through a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey may develop emotional problems including post-traumatic stress. Similar to reactions in the immediate aftermath of a hurricane, the development of later emotional problems depends on a number of factors, including age, degree of exposure (e.g., watching flooded streets on TV versus experiencing major flooding and devastation of home), previous history of traumatic events, and degree of family and community support. If your child continues to struggle and experience symptoms over several weeks and months, consult a mental health provider. The Sleep and Anxiety Center of Houston (SACH) located on the UH campus specializes in the treatment of childhood anxiety and traumatic stress. Visit or call 713.743.3400 for more information about services.