Natural Disasters- Trauma in Children -First Responders Tip Sheet

Natural Disasters and Trauma in Children - A first responders Tip sheet

By Karen Elzinga 6/01/2018

In the event of relocation, be it flood, cyclone, fire, heatwave, drought, or earth quake, many families face hardships. Through the loss of family or friends, loss of home, loss of community, loss of health and wellbeing and/or loss of livelihood children's lives can be transformed (Well, K).

Children are especially susceptible to stress and uncertainty when destabilizing changes occur around them. Children have an uncanny ability to sense when something is wrong with loved ones, and will react according to what they witness. This uncertainty in the child's life is elevated, if the child has witnessed a traumatic event, such as a death of a person (Grace, R., Hodge, K).

In today's main stream media including television, newspaper, radio, the internet, and social media channels, there is repeated coverage of natural events almost on a loop that seems to stem all day. Whilst the media tries to educate the general public to the extent of the devastation, children are being exposed to traumatic footage that they do not understand. Children are watching people being swept away in floods to their end, accounts of people fleeing fire, or almost being killed, are killed, and/or having homes and livelihoods destroyed by cyclonic activity (Ryan).

A study conducted by Professor Roxanne Cohen Silver after the Boston Marathon in 2013, concluded that viewing traumatic footage in the media for more than 6hrs, elevated people's acute stress levels to a higher degree, than those people who were actually there or had loved ones at the marathon. Susie Burke from the Australian Psychological Society, agreed with the study's findings, saying that watching content from natural disasters can trigger significant emotional responses in vulnerable people especially preschoolers. This is due to this age bracket understanding what they are viewing, however not being aware enough to know that it is a isolated event, that the event has finished, maybe far away, or will be unlikely to affect them or their family (Ryan). 

For this reason a child's wellbeing needs to be carefully considered. Beverley Raphael a Professor at the Australian Trauma and Grief Network told the ABC news network, that exposure to televised natural and unnatural catastrophic events could prove traumatic to young children. It is the reason why the World Health Organization recommends children have limited exposure to televised traumatic events. Professor Raphael suggests to parents of children who are exposed to media coverage, also talk with children asking them to express their feelings about the event, and use the experience to teach emotional literacy (Ryan).

Whilst evidence is scarce about children's resilience in emergencies, researchers Morris and co state that, children able to help with communities affected by natural disaster, aids in their resilience. By heightening children's sense of self concept and sense of belonging, it turns what would ordinarily be a dis-empowering situation, into an empowering one (Morris, van Ommeren , Belfer, Saxana & Saraceno, 2007)

Hobfoll and Co research team has identified 5 intervention principles for use by emergency response units to help aid the direction of practices for the well being and resilience of children (Hobfoll).

1. Promotion of a sense of safety: Children need to feel confident in their environment. By acknowledging concerns and relaying words of safety and telling children, everything will eventually go back to normal, restores their "normal view "of the world around them(Hobfoll).

2. Calm children: Adults responding to children in emergencies need to remain calm. The use of distracting practices such as creative art, role playing and drama, playing contained sports and allowing children to express their fears, can educate to children the differences between a past, present and future event (Hobfoll).

3. Community involvement: Children need to help aid in their community's recovery (age dependent of course). Very young toddlers can feel a sense of achievement from not being over protected after emergencies. A toddler can for e.g. help a father dig, with a child's plastic shovel, whilst a father uses a normal shovel. This empowerment gives children the ability to problem solve and be efficient within their community (Hobfoll).

4. Connectedness: Childhood resilience is also aided by the love and support of stable family members, particularly the maternal parent who provides a trusting, nurturing and caring relationship (Grace). Children should be reunited with family as soon as possible. In failing to re-connect the parent to the child at the time of the emergency, alone children need to be in the presence of caring adults. Carers looking after the welfare of children in crisis situations should be if possible specially trained in sustainable and predictable emergency practices, so the child is not affected further (Hobfoll).

5. Hope: The child needs to be made aware that the environment around them will return to positive again soon, that sometimes bad things happen. Children need to be reassured that the world is mostly good with a level of predictability, and that their future will be a bright and happy place (Hobfoll).


Grace, R., Hodge, K & McMahon, C. (2017). Children Families and Communities. 5th ed. Oxford University Press.

Hobfoll, S., Watson., P., Bell, C., Bryant, R., Brymer, M., Friedman, M., Ursano, R. (2007). Five essential elements of immediate and mid-term mass trauma intervention: Empirical evidence. Psychiatry: Interpersonal & Biological Processes, 70(4), 283-315.

Morris, J., Van Ommeren, M., Belfer, M., Saxena, S., &Saraceno, B. (2007). Children and the Sphere standard on mental and social aspects of health. Disasters, 31(1), 71-90.

Ryan, C. (2016). ABC News. How to help children cope with shocking news coverage. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/hea...

Wells, K. (2015). Natural Disasters in Australia. Retrieved from http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/natural-disasters, either through loss of family members

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