Disasters and their Impact on Children – Part 1

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This article is part 1 of a two-part series. Part 1 presents the importance of placing special attention on children in the context of disaster events and describes some of their unique vulnerabilities. Part 2 dives into types of disasters, with specific examples (e.g., COVID-19, Hurricane Maria) and their influence on children.


The homeland security agenda of a nation should always include a serious consideration of the specific needs of children. Given that disasters are on the rise across the globe, and that children have certain vulnerabilities that make them more prone to the deleterious effects of disasters, it is important to progressively review exactly how each type of disaster can affect children. This article reviews and summarizes the effects of different disasters on the wellbeing of children. Particularly, epidemics exert direct physiological pressures on the health of children, and they weaken their support networks. Natural and man-made disasters share their ability to disrupt critical infrastructure and access to food, sanitation, shelter, security and healthcare. Additionally, they both hold potential to cause direct bodily injury and large population displacements out of disaster zones. Man-made disasters are singular in their higher capacity to weaken law enforcement and financial systems which both result in a heavier burden for children than adults. Therefore, extra care should be placed in disaster mitigation planning to ensure that children are sheltered from these effects.

Disasters and Their Impact on Children

Throughout the course of history, societies have sought to shelter their children from national security threats. Because of this, a nation’s homeland security agenda should always place serious consideration on the safety and wellbeing of children. Recent estimates suggest that nearly 175 million children worldwide are affected by disasters every year 1. and that about 40 million children live in displacement as the result of disasters. 2. These numbers are only expected to rise, 1. 2. 3. given the increasing frequency and severity of disasters around the globe due to a mixture of factors including terrorism, conflict, population growth, unsustainable development, climate change, and adverse effects of technological advancements. 3. Several of these factors have contributed to the United States ranking among the five countries most affected by natural disasters worldwide. 2. 

The impact of disasters is often disproportionately felt by children. 4. 5. This is in part because children have unique physical, mental, social, and developmental needs that make them more vulnerable, so they must be carefully considered in disaster preparedness and responsive policy making. 2. 5. 6. Domestically, these special needs have come to place an additional burden on children during, and long after, major disasters such as terrorist attacks, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and epidemics. These are complex crises that make it especially difficult to create a secure environment where children can thrive. This article, along with part 2 in the series, aims to review and summarize the effects of different disasters on the wellbeing of children. 

Children as a Vulnerable Population

Most authors divide childhood vulnerabilities into three categories: psychological, physical, and developmental. The psychological stress of disasters and forced migration can be felt poignantly in the young mind and therefore leave a long-lasting scar. Although demonstrated differently at different ages, post-traumatic stress disorder and similar anxiety-predominant disorders are frequent sequelae of disaster experiences in childhood. 3. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, children have experienced heightened levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. 7. Anxiety disorders can, in turn, make it difficult for children to establish successful interactions necessary for healthy social development. 8. The psychological response of a child exposed to trauma is proportional to the intensity and extent of exposure. 3. Therefore, it makes sense to create avenues that can be activated during emergencies to rapidly remove children from developing crises and ensure their relative safety early and efficiently. However, care should be taken not to do this in a way that separates children from their support network through rash evacuations – such as were seen during Hurricane Katrina. This type of response has been shown to be counterproductive, resulting in even more trauma. 3. 

Depending on their age, children are also susceptible to physical injury, disease, abuse, and even death, by virtue of their special needs, incomplete cognitive development, often weaker physical constitution, and overall dependence on adults. 3.  This should not be surprising considering that 60% of childhood mortality in the United States can be attributed to accidents and injuries 9. and that accidents and injuries tend to rise during disasters and humanitarian crises. 10. Children are also more prone to dehydration, suffocation, heat loss, and mechanical injuries than adults, and they are more likely to fall ill during prolonged periods of decreased access to sanitation, water, and nutrition, which are commonplace during disasters. These vulnerabilities are heightened by children’s degree of exposure to the crisis and pre-existing socioeconomic status. 1. 

Children’s development can be hindered by diminished access to education, long-term psychological sequelae, and prolonged periods of recovery that preclude a return to normalcy. Education can be hindered by the destruction of schools and the interruption of regular academic activities. Further, older children struggle with juggling the responsibilities of supporting their families and advancing their academic pursuits during times of crisis. 1. 11. Given that so much of their development is dependent on healthy social interactions with both adults and their peers, children’s development can be hindered by trauma and psychological stress that undermines social interactions. 12. Combined, these issues impede the long-term functioning of children who experience trauma in the form of disasters. All disasters, regardless of kind, have the potential to directly affect children precisely by exacerbating all of the aforementioned vulnerabilities.

Henoc Rodriguez
  1. Lai, B.S. & La Greca, A. (2020) Understanding the Impacts of Natural Disasters on Children. Society for Research in Child Development. https://www.srcd.org/research/understanding-impacts-natural-disasters-children[][][][]
  2. Bothe, D. A., Olness, K. N., & Reyes, C. (2018). Overview of children and disasters. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 39(8), 652-662. https://doi.org/10.1097/dbp.0000000000000600[][][][]
  3. Peek, L. (2008). Children and disasters: Understanding vulnerability, developing capacities, and promoting resilience—An introduction. Children Youth and Environments, 18(1), 1-29.[][][][][][]
  4. Kousky, C., (2016). Impacts of natural disasters on children. The Future of Children, 26(1), 73-92. https://doi.org/10.1353/foc.2016.0004[]
  5. Osofsky, J. D., Osofsky, H. J., & Harris, W. W. (2007). Katrina’s children: Social policy considerations for children in disasters. Social Policy Report, 21(1), 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1002/J.2379-3988.2007.TB00050.X[][]
  6. Krug, S. E., Chung, S., Fagbuyi, D. B., Fisher, M. C., Schonfeld, D. J., Shook, J.E., Chun, T.H., Conners, G.P., Conaway, E.E., Dudley, N.C., Fuchs, S.M., Lane, N.E., Macias, C.G. & Moore, B.R. (2015). Ensuring the health of children in disasters. Pediatrics, 136(5), e1407-e1417. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2015-3112[]
  7. Racine, N., McArthur, B. A., Cooke, J. E., Eirich, R., Zhu, J., & Madigan, S. (2021). Global prevalence of depressive and anxiety symptoms in children and adolescents during COVID-19: a meta-analysis. JAMA pediatrics, 175(11), 1142-1150. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.2482[]
  8. Burkholder, A. R., Koss, K. J., Hostinar, C. E., Johnson, A. E., & Gunnar, M. R. (2016). Early life stress: effects on the regulation of anxiety expression in children and adolescents. Social Development, 25(4), 777-793. https://doi.org/10.1111/sode.12170[]
  9. Cunningham, R. M., Walton, M. A., & Carter, P. M. (2018). The major causes of death in children and adolescents in the United States. New England Journal of Medicine, 379(25), 2468-2475. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMsr1804754[]
  10. Bartholdson, S., & von Schreeb, J. (2018). Natural Disasters and Injuries: What Does a Surgeon Need to Know?. Current trauma reports, 4(2), 103–108. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40719-018-0125-3[]
  11. Peek, L. (2008). Children and disasters: Understanding vulnerability, developing capacities, and promoting resilience—An introduction. Children Youth and Environments, 18(1), 1-29. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7721/chilyoutenvi.18.1.0001[]
  12. Burkholder, A. R., Koss, K. J., Hostinar, C. E., Johnson, A. E., & Gunnar, M. R. (2016). Early life stress: effects on the regulation of anxiety expression in children and adolescents. Social Development, 25(4), 777-793. https://doi.org/10.1111/sode.12170[]

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