Overview

For children and youth, disasters can take both an emotional and a physical toll, different from how those disasters would affect adults. Young people are not “mini-adults” and their emotional development is still underway. This means they process and understand information differently than their elders.


The Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) defines children and youth as representing the group of young people from birth to 24 and/or the state at which they obtain independence, whichever comes first. In addition, through the Convention on the Rights of a Child, the UN defines a child “as a person below the age of 18, unless the laws of a particular country set the legal age for adulthood younger.”

The National Center for Disaster Preparedness states, “Children and youth represent a quarter of our population. They are strong and resilient in the face of disasters, often adapting to stresses that weaken most adults, and yet they are also incredibly vulnerable. Young children, in particular, are completely dependent upon many systems in their lives for their survival: their parents, their broader families and communities, the institutions and organizations that care for them and teach them, and the officials and policy-makers who shape their environment.” When a disaster hits or when it is predicted, children need to have a sense of safety. They may hear newscasts and not understand how it is going to affect them. They may feel scared or lost when living in a shelter. They are often separated from all that is familiar including their home – bedroom, stuffed animals, familiar food, technology and daily routines – as well as friends, school and social or recreational outlets. In some cases, they may be separated from family temporarily or for an extended period of time; and they may have lost a loved one during the disaster.

For youth, the impacts are similar, but they may have a more nuanced understanding of the disaster. They may blame their parents/caregivers for not protecting them or their home. Today’s youth are often very politically aware, so they may question the level of — or lack of — response from government and other responders. Youth who were at the point of reaching independence may be frustrated by setbacks – an inability to finish school, the decrease in affordable housing, etc.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “children and teens most at risk for emotional distress include those who:

  • Survived a previous disaster
  • Experienced temporary living arrangements, loss of personal property, and parental unemployment in a disaster
  • Lost a loved one or friend involved in a disaster.”

Dr. Irwin Redlener, president and co-founder of the Children’s Health Fund and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and a CDP Advisory Council member, speaks of the importance of “buffering adults.” These adults, parents or others, are able to be key role models and help lessen the blow of catastrophic events. In the immediate term, adults can provide a safety net for children and youth, but as the disaster stretches on – especially when the outcome is catastrophic – the buffering adults may face their own stressors and find it difficult to hide their own emotions.

SAMHSA states, “Most young people simply need additional time to experience their world as a secure place again and receive some emotional support to recover from their distress. The reactions of children and teens to a disaster are strongly influenced by how parents, relatives, teachers, and caregivers respond to the event. They often turn to these individuals for comfort and help. Teachers and other mentors play an especially important role after a disaster or other crisis by reinforcing normal routines to the extent possible, especially if new routines have to be established.”

Key Facts

  • Children and youth are not just “little adults”—especially in response to disaster. Developing brains are vulnerable to longer-term impacts in areas such as memory, regulation of emotions and attention. Also, they may be especially affected by trauma because they are less able to anticipate danger and may be less able to articulate how they feel. Children and youth may blame themselves or others for not being able to prevent the disaster and keep them “safe.”
  • Generic assumptions cannot be made about the way children or youth will respond to disasters. As with adults, the response to a disaster is uniquely individual. Some young people will have great tolerance and resilience, while others will be more vulnerable and have greater challenges achieving a sense of “normalcy” or even their “new normal”. Factors at play include a young person’s psychological makeup before the event, in addition to the presence or absence of a “buffering adult.”
  • Disasters may affect children and youth for years to come. Young people tend to postpone aspects of processing traumatic events until they reach particular developmental stages; they respond age-appropriately, and that response will likely not be a one-time event.
  • Culture, economic standing and ethnicity can all play roles in how trauma and recovery are viewed. Vulnerable populations may face insensitivity, limited access to services and additional barriers to receiving the help they need to recover fully.

How to Help

  • Support psychological first aid efforts for children, youth and their families. Not enough workers have been trained to effectively help. Mental health providers, in turn, can work with other professionals in health care, schools, spiritual settings and other areas to assist in noticing and treating symptoms of distress. Training should be both developmentally and culturally appropriate.
  • Fund age-appropriate preparedness training for children and youthThe best trainings for young people are those that recognize their stage of life and provide information at a level they can best understand. Preparedness for children and youth is a key way of helping them deal with the stress and trauma of a disaster. Many schools, for example, offer hazard-appropriate training for their areas – i.e. tornado or earthquake drills. Additionally, all schools have fire drills and many have incorporated active shooter training.
  • Provide school rebuilding and educational supports. The loss of access to a classroom is about more than a loss of education. Schools provide social and recreational activities and they are often community hubs for the delivery of a variety of services. See CDP’s Issue Insight on Education for more information about the importance of educational supports and schools.
  • Support services for those already at higher risk for emotional distress, such as those living in violent households. Children and youth already in a vulnerable state will have fewer resources to draw from should a disaster occur.
  • Fund studies that will establish best practices in assisting children and youth pre- and post-disaster. Research could be done, for example, on the most effective ways parents, teachers and other adults can be buffers in disaster situations.
  • Support the dissemination of evidence-based tools for post-disaster assistance of children, youth and their families. Medical professionals should have plans in place before a disaster occurs.
  • Develop and convene leadership that can provide a holistic and collaborative view of clinical, policy, faith-based and other assistance available to communities. Response tends to be siloed rather than networked. The work of CDP’s Midwest Early Recovery Fund’s Midwest Low Attention Disaster Children’s Working Group is an example of how funders and communities can work together to address disaster needs for young people.

What Funders Are Doing

– Following Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, ASPIRA,received $300,000 to address food security via three work objectives. They will work to increase the amount of locally grown food, support economic development through tourism activities and develop agriculture and hospitality industry skills in youth ages 12 to 18.

Texas Children’s Hospital was awarded $779,917, to be spent over two years, for the expansion of the Trauma and Grief Center at Texas Children’s Hospital’s Mobile Unit program. The funding will increase access to best-practice care among traumatized and bereaved children affected by Hurricane Harvey. The Trauma and Grief Center will expand its mobile clinic program to include two units that will provide trauma-informed assessments and care to youth located in the most underserved areas of greater Houston.

Whole Kids Outreach was able to hire an additional social worker to support children and families affected by the 2017 floods in Van Buren, Missouri. Since this first grant, the Midwest Early Recovery Fund has now made two similar grants. One in nearby Ripley County, Missouri after several suicide attempts by high school students living in another flooded community; the other to support the elementary school in Seeley Lake, Montana after the horrific 2017 wildfire season.

– Additionally, through its Midwest Early Recovery Fund, CDP has supported increased attention to disaster preparedness and response for children and youth. A webinar was held in Dec. 2018 to inform attendees how to support organizations invested in protecting children before, during and after a disaster. The Fund has also launched the Midwest Low Attention Disaster Children’s Working Group to ensure the needs of children are addressed.

  • In 2017, Chevron Corporation Contributions Program provided $750,000 to Save the Children Federation in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey to provide mental health support to 50,000 children in the Houston region affected by Hurricane Harvey through the Journey of Hope program.
  • The W.K. Kellogg Foundation gave buildOn $184,161 in 2017 to create a safe learning environment for children in the southwest corridor of Haiti by repairing grantee-constructed schools that were damaged in October 2016 during Hurricane Matthew.
  • The Global Fund for Women provided the Philippines’ based group Ranao Women and Children Resource Center a $5,000 grant to offer physical and emotional support to women and girl survivors who are experiencing the effects of the earthquake in San Francisco Surigao City in 2017.
  • In 2016, The Ford Foundation provided a $100,000 grant to Mij Film Yapim Reklam Ve Pazarlama Dis Ticaret Ltd. Sirketi for the production of Life on the Road, a documentary made by Kurdish Yezidi youth as they leave refugee camps on the Syrian and Iraqi borders after ISIS is removed from their homelands.
  • In 2016, Comic Relief donated $574,936 to The Indigo Trust to support the Sensi Tech Hub in Freetown, Sierra Leone, a new community space where technology and entrepreneurship can interact to create jobs and help give young people opportunities. In the aftermath of a civil war and an Ebola outbreak, many young people in Sierra Leone were unemployed or under-employed. This funding allowed Sensi to give small grants and training to individuals, youth-led start-ups and more established organizations working with young people to help them become more innovative and effective.
  • The Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation provided a $30,000 grant following the Great Flood of 2016 to the Baton Rouge Children’s Advocacy Center. They provide licensed therapists to youth and families exposed to trauma and created a group for disaster trauma survivors. They utilize scientifically-based approaches, tapping into the resilience of children so they can shift their life experience of trauma from potential tragedy into growth and being thriving survivors.

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