Kids are inherently sensitive to things happening around them. They are easily affected by visual images and are surprisingly perceptive of their parents’ reactions, concerns and anxieties, along with those of others. The recent weather events and the resulting devastation have left tremendous fear in many children who watched or experienced the events first hand or from a distance.

Children react to disasters differently than adults. A child’s age plays into how they cope with disaster. Reactions can range from being clingy and refusing to leave a parent’s side, to stomachaches, headaches or refusing to go to school or other daily activities. In some cases, sleep patterns change to include vivid dreams, nightmares and night terrors.    

Acute stress disorder, which is the immediate surfacing of symptoms, isn’t uncommon in children. Post-traumatic stress disorder describes the same set of symptoms but may occur a month or so later. In many cases, children may relive the disaster, becoming jumpy and startled, or they may avoid any reference to the experience. They may withdraw from friends, family or favorite activities. Changes in appetite and sleep accompanied by academic decline or attitude changes may be signs that they need to get help.

Parents can help their children deal with disaster by acknowledging the experience.  Expression of feelings can be aided using drawings, through doll play, and creating stories.  

In the case of disasters and traumatic events, basic necessities should be provided for children. The recognition, validation and treatment of mood changes and anxiety can come over time. Speaking with victims, witnesses and care providers is also an essential part of healing.

While memories of the traumatic event can fade or improve with time, the experience stays with the child as they grow older. It can become part of the child, impacting personality as it evolves, especially if there is a predisposition for depression and anxiety in the family.  

Early recognition of symptoms and early intervention is important for kids who have experienced a traumatic event. If you are concerned about your child, call your pediatrician for recommendations and/or referrals to a counselor or therapist for individual or group therapy. This will allow your child to talk about the cause of their anxiety and learn strategies to appropriately cope with their experiences, feelings and fears.  In severe cases, medication may also be an option. The main thing to remember is to be aware of your child’s reactions and behavior and address them as soon as possible. It will both help your child and put your mind at ease.

Dr. Duru Sakhrani is medical director for child and adolescent inpatient psychiatry at Mercy Children’s Hospital. For more information about Mercy Children’s Hospital, please visit