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date: 20 August 2017

Children, Youth, and Disaster

Summary and Keywords

Children and youth are greatly affected by disasters, and as climate instability leads to more weather-related disasters, the risks to the youngest members of societies will continue to increase. Children are more likely to live in risky places, such as floodplains, coastal areas, and earthquake zones, and more likely to be poor than other groups of people. While children and youth in industrialized countries are experiencing increased risks, the children and youth in developing countries are the most at risk to disasters.

Children and youth are vulnerable before, during, and after a disaster. In a disaster, many children and youth experience simultaneous and ongoing disruptions in their families, schooling, housing, health and access to healthcare, friendships, and other key areas of their lives. Many are at risk to separation from guardians, long-term displacement, injury, illness, and even death. In disaster planning, there is often an assumption that parents will protect their children in a disaster event, and yet children are often separated from their parents when they are at school, childcare centers, home alone, with friends, and at work. Children do not have the resources or independence to prepare for disasters, so they are often reliant on adults to make evacuation decisions, secure shelter, and provide resources. Children also may hide or have trouble articulating their distress to adults after a disaster. In the disaster aftermath, it has been found that children and youth—no matter how personally resilient—cannot fully recover without the necessary resources and social support.

Social location—such as social class, race, gender, neighborhood, resources, and networks—prior to a disaster often determines, at least in part, many of the children’s post-disaster outcomes. In other words, age intersects with many other factors. Girls, for example, are at risk to sexual violence and exploitation in some disaster aftermath situations. In addition, a child’s experience in a disaster could also be affected by language, type of housing, immigration status, legal status, and disability issues. Those living in poverty have more difficulties preparing for disasters, do not have the resources to evacuate, and live in lower quality housing that is less able to withstand a disaster. Thus, it is crucial to consider the child’s environment before and after the disaster, to realize that some children experience cumulative vulnerability, or an accumulation of risk factors, and that disasters may occur on top of other crises, such as drought, epidemics, political instability, violence, or a family crisis such as divorce or death.

Even as children and youth are vulnerable, they also demonstrate important and often unnoticed capacities, skills, and strengths, as they assist themselves and others before and after disaster strikes. Frequently, children are portrayed as helpless, fragile, passive, and powerless. But children and youth are creative social beings and active agents, and they have played important roles in preparedness activities and recovery for their families and communities. Thus, both children’s vulnerabilities and capacities in disasters should be a research and policy priority.

Keywords: children, youth, disaster, vulnerability, resilience, recovery, preparedness, risk


The past decade has seen an increased interest in and a surge of new research conducted on the topic of children, youth, and disaster. This is a welcome change. Prior to this new attention, the topic had not been widely researched by social scientists and had not been a top research or policy priority, in the United States and globally.

In 2005, sociologist William Anderson published an influential essay on children and disaster. In it, he lamented the lack of social science research and attention to children and disaster. He stated clearly: “A simple question can be raised. Where are children and youths in social science disaster research?” He noted that there was little mention of children in the hazard field summary volumes, known as the “First Assessment” and “Second Assessment” (Mileti, 1999) and only discussed in Drabek’s (1986) earlier summary of the disaster field in a mental health context. Anderson continued:

Thus there is a serious need to find a place for children and youths on the disaster research agenda and to advance knowledge about this segment of the population. Such knowledge would provide a more complete understanding of the impact of hazards and disasters on society across the board and result in a firmer basis for policy and practice. Disaster social scientists should be more committed to determining the extent to which such social factors as age influence vulnerability and disaster outcomes . . . The knowledge base on children and disasters is so thin that studies related to children in this context are needed across the entire mitigation, preparedness, and response and recovery spectrum.

(pp. 161–162)

As Anderson mentioned, the work that had been done had been on this topic had mostly been in a mental health context. Indeed, most of the research that was conducted in the 20th century on children and disaster was in the field of psychology and focused on the psychosocial impacts on children in disasters. Many of these important studies focused on post-traumatic stress disaster (PTSD), were done in the short term of disaster aftermaths, and were conducted at one point in time. This mental health research played a key role in the establishment of the field.

After Anderson’s call for attention to this knowledge gap, the field slowly but steadily began to focus on children and youth in disasters beyond the psychological lens. In the same year, scholars in New Zealand posited that youth and schools play a large role in community resilience and that collaborative partnerships need to be developed (Ronan & Johnston, 2005). In 2006, Wisner issued a report on children, education, and disaster risk reduction from a global perspective, looking at countries around the globe and what they were doing in the areas of hazards education and risk reduction. Shortly after, there was a special issue on children and disaster published in the journal Children, Youth and Environment in 2008, and there were notable summary articles on age and vulnerability in the Social Vulnerability to Disasters textbooks (Peek, 2010, 2013) which covered children as well as the elderly.

Indeed, in the time since Anderson’s call for more research, especially in the last decade, the social science field has responded with a surge of new research, varied in methods and contexts. There has been important research and reports on how children factor into efforts for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and Climate Change Adaptation (CCA), as well as on projects on youth resilience. There have also been a range of methodologies used, both qualitative and quantitative, including focus groups, interviews, and community participatory research; and a commitment to put children at the center of the research. Additionally there has been critical policy work and we have seen important new initiatives, such as the Global Alliance for Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience in the Education Sector’s comprehensive school safety framework. The entire field of children and disaster has evolved dramatically in a short time frame, pushing new ideas in research and policy to the forefront at the same time children around the globe are facing new challenges rooted in climate instability.

Children, Youth, and Disaster in the Disaster Life Cycle

This article will present some of the main findings and important issues on how children and youth experience disasters. This is not an exhaustive review of all literature on the topic; instead, this discussion aims to present a bird’s eye view of what is known in this area and some of the central questions, ideas, and gaps in this area, highlighting some of the research that has been conducted. An eight-stage typology will be used to organize the findings.1 This typology has been used previously to organize research reviews on issues of vulnerability, inequality, and disasters—specifically gender (Fothergill, 1996), race and ethnicity (Fothergill, Maestas, & Darlington, 1999), and income inequality and poverty (Fothergill & Peek, 2004). Other disaster scholars also choose to present findings using similar “disaster life cycle” frameworks (Phillips, Thomas, Fothergill, & Blinn-Pike, 2010; Thomas, Phillips, Lovekamp, & Fothergill, 2013).

The findings are delineated into the following categories: Risk Perception/Understanding of Hazards, Preparedness, Warning Communication and Response, Physical Impacts, Psychological Impacts, Emergency Response, Recovery, and Reconstruction/Risk Reduction. While it is clear that people’s experiences, and the research conducted on them, do not always fall neatly into “disaster life cycle” categories, this typology has been found in the past to be useful to organize and make sense of a wide range of studies that use a variety of methods and have a wide range of scope.

Children, Youth, and DisasterClick to view larger

Figure 1. Nepal, February 2016. Children helping with recovery from the 2015 earthquake.

Photo courtesy of Alice Fothergill.

Children and youth’s capacities and strengths will also be discussed in each section. Children’s capacities in the disaster life cycle have been largely overlooked until recently. At the same time that children and youth are vulnerable, they also demonstrate important and often unnoticed capacities and strengths, as they assist themselves and others before and after a disaster strikes. Children can play an active role in all stages. Nepalese children, for example, helped during the recovery and reconstruction periods in their villages, such as in the village of Bungamati outside of Kathmandu (see Figure 1). As the research on children and youth in disaster has progressed, there has been increasing attention paid to how children are not just helpless victims, but also active agents who could be a valuable part of risk reduction and recovery. This attention and recognition is part of a wider understanding in the sociology of childhood and childhood studies that see children as active agents. They are able to make important contributions and create peer cultures of their own, as posited by the childhood sociologist William Corsaro in his work on children (2011). Thus, when data are available, there will be a discussion of the capacities of children and youth in each section.

Risk Perception/Understanding of Hazards

It is important to understand how children perceive the risk of a hazard in their environment and how it is that children learn and understand the risks facing their families and communities. Who or what is shaping those perceptions? What are the factors that play a role in that perception? How does age interact with gender and other factors to form their risk perception? It is also critical to understand how children and youth’s perception and understanding of hazards in their communities vary greatly depending on cultural, environmental, political, and economic factors.

Adults sometimes base their judgments of risks based on their own past experiences; would this be a less influential factor for children since they have fewer past experiences from which to draw? How would age affect the reception and personalization process? Would children be more susceptible to the “heuristic of availability” and think of things as risky that are easy to imagine because of images in social media? Or do children feel that adults will protect them from harm, so they view hazards as less threatening? Are children and youth more or less likely to trust the risk information source than adults? We do not yet know the answers to these questions.

Perhaps children perceive threats and risks of hazards in the same way as their parents. This seems logical, considering what we know about socialization and the way in which children learn attitudes, beliefs, and values from their parents. And yet, children and youth spend a good deal of time away from their parents—in school, childcare centers, with friends—and create their own peer cultures and learn from other socialization agents, such as teachers and the media. Furthermore, children have less control over their lives and less power in general than adults and that might influence what seems “risky” or not; we have seen in past research that low-income individuals have heightened levels of risk perception possibly for this reason.

Some research challenges the notion that children and adults share identical perceptions of risk. Based on their research on El Salvador and the Philippines, Mitchell, Tanner, and Haynes’s (2009) findings suggest that children have substantially different views on risk than their parents. They found that children showed more concern about high magnitude, low frequency events, while their parents perceived low magnitude, high frequency as a greater worry. In thinking of capacities, the researchers state that if children and youth are able to address the low magnitude, high frequency events in their communities, it gives them greater confidence in their abilities and allows them to see themselves as agents of change. In addition, they argue that in El Salvador they found that children have a “clear and uncluttered view about risks” (p. 263), and take an all-risk approach; in their lists of hazards, the children included environmental hazards as well as rape, alcoholism, and not receiving enough love and care. In Indonesia, children created a more extensive list of disaster risk than adults, demonstrating an understanding of a broader range of risks, and they were better able to recall disaster events that took place in their lifetime than their parents were (Haynes, Lassa, & Towers, 2010).

Babugura (2008) found that children in Botswana learned about the risk of drought from school, their parents, and their friends. She found that their perceptions were mostly based in scientific knowledge and were generally well-informed. Children in many communities, it appears, learn a lot about hazards in the school setting, and in some cases pass that information on o their families. In research on Zimbabwe by Mudavanhu and colleagues (2015), children were found to be effective risk communicators; adults reported that they got their risk information from their school-age children. In addition to passing information on to their parents, they distributed disaster pamphlets to their communities and helped with the distribution of chlorine tablets during a cholera outbreak. Wisner (2006) argues that children should learn about risks in their communities and schools by doing hands-on curriculum in their schools. This, he states, should include children and youth inspecting their own schools, mapping out the area, and interviewing elders about past extreme natural events. Many others have also pointed out the effectiveness of hazard mapping exercises with children.

Past research has found that there are gender differences in risk perception for adults, so it may be that those gender differences also are present for children and youth. Women, for example, are more likely to perceive a disaster event or threat as risky or threatening than men, and they are particularly likely to perceive a risk as more threatening if it affects their children. Some of this thinking suggests that men and adolescent boys might have a tendency to be more risk taking, and women and girls may be more risk averse; but this may be context and culturally specific and should not be accepted out of hand. In a study in Indonesia, gender differences in risk perception were found when children were asked for their risk priorities. Girls ranked landslides as the top risk priority because they would cause the most damage, while boys ranked flooding as the top priority because they could deal with that hazard more easily (Haynes et al., 2010).

Another issue for consideration is whether children and youth should be shielded from information about risks. It is understandable that adults do not want to scare children with information about disasters that may or may not occur; yet, research finds that the information is not frightening or paralyzing, depending on how it is presented. It could even be empowering to learn about risks and then how they can be mitigated. Children, for example, are taught risks of cars and bicycles, and can even be the family enforcers of seat belts and helmets, and about diseases transmitted from mosquitos, and learn to mitigate that risk without producing paralyzing fear. The amount of information about particular hazards that is shared with children, depending on the context, might depend on the child’s age and culture. Taken as a whole, it is clear that we have made some progress recently on this topic, but it is crucial that we learn more about this in the future.

Preparedness Behavior

Preparedness behavior is a broad category and includes activities such as identifying evacuation routes, performing safety drills, mitigating homes and schools, gathering and storing emergency supplies, being trained for disaster response, and working on disaster risk reduction projects. Some argue that children are not included in many preparedness activities, they are not in emergency planning groups, and do not make decisions about how to prepare (see, for example, Mort, Walker, Williams, Bingley, & Howells, 2016). Others point out that preparedness programs to reduce the vulnerability of children are taking place in many countries around the globe, and how children and youth can and should have a significant role in preparedness (see for example Mitchell et al., 2009). In the United States, for example, there are programs at the state and federal level, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has designed preparedness materials for teachers and children and has resources accessible on their website.

A cornerstone of preparedness is making sure children have safe, sound school structures. Shaw and Kobayashi (2001) argue for the importance of the earthquake-safer construction of schools, such as retrofitting, but they also argue for this to happen in a participatory way making sure local communities and governments are involved. The School Earthquake Safety Initiative, a program by the United Nations, promotes self-help, cooperation, and education as the core of disaster mitigation. In Nepal, Indonesia, India, and Uzbekistan, they found that disaster education in schools can create a culture of prevention and mitigation throughout the community. Safer schools save lives, and also can serve as temporary shelters after an earthquake or other disaster. Shaw and Kobayashi (2001) like many other scholars around the world, are concerned with schools that are built rapidly without proper seismic design. They found that in Kathmandu Valley in Nepal that the majority of the schools needed retrofitting and none of the public schools had any emergency response plans.

There has been some attention paid to school-age children and preparedness. Researchers Johnston, Ronan, and Standring (2014), evaluated the effectiveness of disaster preparedness education in New Zealand’s schools and examined the implementation of the national teaching resource “What’s the Plan, Stan?” designed for ages 7–12. Ronan, Alisic, Towers, Johnson, and Johnston (2015) conducted comprehensive, critical review of disaster preparedness programs for children, and they found that many existing programs had positive effects on various risk reduction and resilience preparedness indicators, but they feel more research is needed. One recommendation for New Zealand was the establishment of a National School Earthquake Exercise Day. Tipler, Tarrant, Tuffin, and Johnston (2016) found that legislation for preparedness in New Zealand schools was ambiguous and that schools needed more clear disaster risk reduction guidance and emergency preparedness benchmarks. In some villages in India, children are trained in first aid, search and rescue, and warnings, using role-playing, posters, mapping activities, mock drills, and making lists of all children in each village. In fact, the children’s favorite class was learning to bandage the arms, faces, and legs of their friends. Also, teams of children are chosen to be trained to broadcast warnings and guide people into cyclone structures (Nikku, Karkara, & Ahmed, 2006).

There is very little research on preschool age children, such as those in childcare settings, and preparedness. Large numbers of children attend childcare centers and in-home childcare programs and it is unclear if childcare settings are prepared for disasters. In Colorado, a study by Prelog and colleagues (2014) found that while 93% of childcare providers in that state have a disaster preparedness plan, 83% of them have no budget for disaster preparedness activities. In Florida, research found that many childcare centers at risk to hurricanes were not well prepared; many did not have a written hurricane response plan (Wilson & Kershaw, 2008). Around the United States, because of recent changes to the federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF) regulations, childcare centers are in the process of improving their all-hazard planning, including requiring plans and training of staff. Future research should review these policy changes to measure whether they have increased preparedness.

Overall, reports from all over the globe have shown that children and youth can have a positive role in the preparedness activities of their households, schools, and communities. They may translate preparedness materials to their family members who do not speak the dominant language, they can identify escape routes, and they can help stock supplies. In the Gulf Coast, children and youth helped with numerous preparedness activities before Hurricane Katrina (Fothergill & Peek, 2015). In El Salvador, youth participate in youth emergency preparedness brigades and receive disaster prevention training, which may include emergency drills and sanitation campaigns (Fordham, 2009). Children and youth are an enormous resource in this stage of a disaster and the more they can be trained and brought into preparedness activities, the safer they and their communities will be in a disaster. Unfortunately, adults do not always understand this, as seen in Indonesia when men were asked what girls could do in their village to reduce disasters; some responded that girls just scream and are frightened (Haynes et al., 2010). In England and Wales, where there is no systematic flood education in schools, children asked to learn more about floods—how to make flood plans, for example—and identified it as a priority for their resilience (Mort et al., 2016).

Warning Communication and Response

The warning communication and response stage usually includes the dissemination and receiving of disaster warnings, such as tornado and flood sirens or emergency broadcasts, and actions taken as a result, such as evacuation. Who is likely to receive this important risk communication? And who is going to respond with protective actions? Do warnings reach children? Overall, it can be said that there is very little known about children, youth, and warning communication and response, and more attention should be given to this topic in the future.

Most children and youth are dependent on adults in their lives to communicate the risk and to instruct them or assist them with the appropriate response, especially if they are young. These adults could be parents, guardians, teachers, or childcare providers. There is an assumption that parents will take care of children when there are warnings or protective actions needed, and this is often the case. However, it is important to keep in mind that many children are not with their parents when disasters occur. Many are at school, jobs, with friends, at childcare centers or babysitters’ homes, or in self-care.

In general, the presence of children at home often leads to evacuation when disaster looms. Research has found that families with children in the home are more likely to evacuate in times of disaster. In Hurricane Katrina, children’s presence prompted adults to evacuate more often and earlier than they would have without them. However, this was true for families who had the resources to evacuate—a working vehicle, money for gas and lodging, for example. There was evidence that families with children who wanted to evacuate but did not have the means to do so, took other protective measures (Fothergill & Peek, 2015). An important issue to consider is households that have both children and pets. Family pets in some countries are considered members of the family, and children especially are opposed to being separated from them in times of crisis. Thus, families are reluctant to leave pets behind in a disaster, and this could hinder evacuation in some cases. Indeed, one of the most significant reasons people do not evacuate in a disaster is that they do not want to leave their pets, and this is especially true in households with children.

Children often learn how to effectively respond to a disaster from the adults in their schools. In 9/11, for example, teachers played a critical role in evacuation. There is some evidence that the teaching of protective actions must be taught carefully and in the full context of the situation. In Nepal in the 2015 earthquake, children ran into schools even though school was not in session so that they could hide under their desks, which they had been taught was the safest place for them in an earthquake. They did not understand that they were safer outside and were carefully following what they had been taught. Many of these children perished. This same behavior was also seen during earthquakes and aftershocks in New Zealand. In addition to schools for older children (ages 5–18), attention is needed on the youngest children, from birth to age five. Many of these very young children are in the care of childcare centers or home providers, many of which do not have all-hazard evacuation plans and do not practice drills.

One area for future consideration concerns additional differences among children and youth. Are there gender and class differences with children and warnings and response? Most likely yes, but more research is needed. Past research has found gender differences: Women are more likely to hear and believe warnings than men are and interpret them as valid and respond more to warnings than men, often because of their social networks. As many young children are often with their mothers, this might have a direct bearing on children. Thinking about ability status, children and youth with disabilities may be at particular risk because they may not be able to take protective actions, such as crawling under their desks, or running to higher ground (Peek & Stough, 2010).

Turning to capacities, children can be helpful during the warning and evacuation phase. Children are often educated about risks at school and bring that information home. Children can be a calming presence as a disaster looms. Children can help prepare younger siblings, pack up belongings, and do specific chores for their parents as the family prepares to evacuate. In the days and hours before Hurricane Katrina, children and youth took on various responsibilities to help their families evacuate (Fothergill & Peek, 2015). Often children can be the translators of warnings for family members who do not speak the dominant language. In New Zealand, children know to watch for natural warning signs for tsunamis, learning the slogan “Long, Strong, Be Gone” meaning that if the earthquake is lasts more than a minute and makes them fall down, then they need to get to higher ground immediately.

Physical Impacts

Research on injury, disease, and fatality rates finds that children and youth suffer tremendous physical impacts around the globe in disasters.

Children and youth suffer physically particularly when they are in structures, such as schools or homes that collapse or are badly damaged or destroyed. The data show high fatalities for children and youth in schools, many of which have been poorly constructed. One of the earliest examples on record of this was the aptly named “Children’s Blizzard” in 1888 in the Midwestern United States. The fierce and unexpected storm descended on children as they walked home from school or as they huddled in poorly constructed schools; scores of children died or lost their limbs (Laskin, 2004). In the almost 130 years since then, there have been numerous accounts of children dying in their poorly constructed schools. The statistics that have emerged from many disasters are staggering. The earthquake in China in 2008, for example, killed 10,000 children, and many of them were in their schools that collapsed, most likely due to poor construction (Wong, 2008). The school tragedies around the globe have led many to question the soundness of the construction of the buildings and whether governments are to blame, as in some cases schools have collapsed but other buildings around the schools have remained standing. In China, there was widespread outcry over the collapsed schools and many demanded that the government take responsibility for the deaths of the children.

Related to the poor construction, schools are often also located in risky locations, such as floodplains, hillsides, and tsunami zones. In the U.S. west coast, for example, many schools are located in dangerous tsunami zones. In some locations in Washington state, residents voted against moving their schools even though they are in the tsunami zone, and decided to keep the schools where they are despite the fact that there is no safe evacuation route for most of the schools in case of a tsunami. However, in Westport, Washington, the Ocosta Elementary School was designed to have a tsunami shelter on top of the school gym, large enough for the students and many town residents.

After some disasters, communities realize that timing saved lives, as earthquakes occurred during non-school hours, and their schools did not fare well. In 1933 in California, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck on a Friday afternoon, just a few hours after schools were let out for the day. More than 230 schools had major damage or were destroyed or were deemed too unsafe to occupy (Olson, 1998; State of California, 2007). The poorly designed buildings had not been built to withstand earthquakes. This type of wake-up call has occurred in other places. More recently, in 2015, the 7.8 Ghorka Earthquake hit Nepal on a Saturday morning, when children and their families were largely outside, working and playing; they would have perished inside their schools had it been a school day. Nepalese felt that it was a miracle that the earthquake occurred on a weekend day. Wisner (2006) examined this phenomenon of the “luck” of disasters occurring when children are not in schools—either it was a holiday or weekend, during the night, or when children were out to recess. In his work, Wisner provides a chart of all the disasters that have fallen in this “lucky” category where fatalities could have been much higher.

Unfortunately, many children and youth and their families are not so fortunate. Some studies have shed light on how and why children and youth suffer tremendously from the physical impacts of disasters. Mudavanhu and colleagues (2015) examined children in Zimbabwe, a country faced with multiple disasters: floods, droughts, fires, epidemics, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Often they are interconnected. In 2007, for example, floods in one region led to malaria and diarrheal disease that affected over 1000 families. Their research highlights the physical impacts of disaster on children. Here they describe the children in their study:

About 75% of children who participated in the study have seen their houses and school infrastructure collapse, have lost their livelihoods, and have suffered either from malaria, cholera, dysentery, or diarrhoea due to flooding. Children described their experiences during floods as a time when houses collapse, rivers overflow, bridges are swept away, roads become slippery and unusable, animals drown, there is an outbreak of disease, and food becomes scarce at the same time contaminated water is widespread. About 80% of children had tried to cross flooded rivers, missed school, and experienced separation from parents during flooding.

This excerpt exemplifies the numerous risks that children face and how hazards intersect and multiply, such as the emergence of disease after disasters. Along these lines, children are also at particular risk to exposure to toxins that can damage their growing bodies. Thus we need to consider children’s exposure to sewage, asbestos, contamination, oil, chemicals as well as black mold and mildew, which may appear in flooded buildings. In Japan after the 2011 earthquake-tsunami-nuclear accident, children were at risk to radiation, yet many fathers put employment and economic stability ahead of their children’s health (Morioka, 2014). After Hurricane Katrina, children and youth were at risk to exposure to a variety of environmental contaminants, such as at their playgrounds and parks (Figure 2).

Children, Youth, and DisasterClick to view larger

Figure 2. New Orleans, 2005. Children’s playground after Hurricane Katrina.

Photo courtesy of Alice Fothergill.

Other issues of social vulnerability are also factors. Social class, gender, race, and ability status affect children’s vulnerability to physical impacts. Past research has found that the morbidity and mortality rates for female children are often higher than for boys in developing countries, even though girls have physiological advantages over boys. This is often the result of discrimination toward females. Children in developing countries, especially the poorest children, appear to be the most vulnerable to death and injury. Children with disabilities are also seen as being more at risk to the physical impacts of disasters as they are unable to take many of the necessary protective actions.

Physical impacts also include illness, starvation, and undernutrition. For example, in a study in rural Eastern India, researchers found that children in flooded communities that were repeatedly flooded had a higher incidence of wasting, that is, becoming weak and emaciated and greatly undernourished (Rodriguez-Llanes, Manuel, Ranjan-Dash, Mukhopadhyay, & Guha-Sapir, 2016). The cases of severe wasting were over three times higher for the children aged six months to just under five years of age in the repeatedly flooded communities than those in non-flooded communities. Another physical impact is child abuse and neglect, which is of grave concern and needs more attention (Curtis, Miller, & Berry, 2000). One study found increased traumatic brain injury among children two years old or younger after Hurricane Floyd (Keenan, Marshall, Nocera, & Runyan, 2004).

The physical impacts that have been documented in disasters are numerous and complicated. One important thing to consider is that children are often present when other children are injured, and thus some of the strategies in some parts of the world to train children, even young children, in first aid and emergency response might allow children to save others. It is important to note here that children and youth can have a role in minimizing or preventing grave physical injuries or death. They take actions that save others in disasters. In New Zealand in 2017, for example, two teen brothers rescued a woman, a toddler, and a dog when the levees in their town of Edgecumbe broke suddenly during heavy rains. Wisner (2006) points out the children who learned about disasters in schools were able to save lives when they struck.

Psychological Impacts

Research has shown that disasters have psychological impacts on children and youth, often greater than adults. In many ways we know more about this aspect of children and disaster than the other dimensions in this eight-category model. Data support the idea that emotional impacts on children vary by age, disaster exposure, and level of support from parents and other adults. Furthermore, when adults are suffering from emotional distress, depression, PTSD, they often cannot meet the needs of their children, and the children themselves may exhibit the symptoms. It is important to point out that because of the widespread stigmatization of mental health problems, many survivors are hesitant to admit these impacts or receive treatment for them.

One of the most significant and often cited contributions to this discussion was the extensive literature review of 250 studies done by Norris, Friedman, and Watson (2002) and Norris, Friedman, Watson, Byrne et al. (2002). They included published quantitative studies done from 1981–2001 on acute, collectively experienced, sudden onset disasters. The majority of the studies were single post-disaster assessments. They found that school-age children had been more negatively affected by disasters than adults, stating “samples composed of youth were more likely to fall into the severe range of impairment than samples of adults” (Norris, Friedman, & Watson, 2002, p. 218). They do note, however, that the results are not clear for preschool aged children. When examining youth and ethnicity, youth from the majority ethnic groups were more likely to fare better, but the authors admit there is little information on this topic. The research team also found that disaster location mattered for the youth outcomes: severe or very severe impairment was observed more often in developing countries than developed countries, and disaster type made a difference as there were more negative outcomes in situations of mass violence than natural or technological disasters. For both children and adults, in general the samples improved as time passed.

In addition, Norris and colleagues found that family factors played a significant role. Studies concluded that if a child had a distressed parent, he or she was more likely to be distressed and the “less irritable and more supportive parents had healthier children, and parents with less psychopathology offered more support” (Norris, Friedman, & Watson, 2002, p. 237). Indeed, they state that parental distress is sometimes the strongest predictor of their children’s distress. Others since then agree with this conclusion (Ronan et al., 2008).

Other studies have also documented the psychological challenges faced by children and youth in disasters. Abramson, Park, Stehling-Ariza, and Redlener (2010) found that children exposed to Hurricane Katrina were nearly five times as likely as a pre-Katrina cohort to have serious emotional disturbance. Some studies on children and youth in disasters have found that they are often worried, afraid, and stressed after a disaster (see for example, Babugura, 2008; La Greca, Silverman, Vernberg, & Roberts, 2002; Mudavanhu et al., 2015). They are afraid of being separated from their families, upset about missing school, stressed by new conflicts in their families, and sometimes overwhelmed by the amount of work expected and needed from them (Mudavanhu et al., 2015). In The Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, researchers found that children were especially vulnerable in terms of mental health, and it was particularly difficult to reach them and help them because of the stigma surrounding mental illness in that area (Kozu & Homma, 2014). Research in India found that a community that was hit with heavy rains, glacier melting, flash flooding, landslides, and mudslides experienced deaths, food shortages, ruined temples, and contaminated water supplies. This situation caused post-disaster stress disorder (PTSD) in adolescents (Watts, 2014).

Children’s reactions can be negatively affected by the degree of exposure to the disaster event—how life threatening, how much they saw and experienced, the intensity of it—and how upset and distraught their parents are in the aftermath. Furthermore, other family factors may also decrease a child’s emotional health such as family conflict, parents’ substance abuse, ineffective discipline, and low levels of warmth (Ronan & Johnston, 2005). The age of the child might also play a role in psychological reactions and how they are expressed. In a study of school-age children in Hurricane Hugo, the younger children were more likely to report PTSD symptoms than older children (Shannon, Lonigan, Finch, & Taylor, 1994).

In addition, there is some indication that the death of a family pet, or even a missing family pet in a disaster, can be deeply distressing to children. In Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of families were not allowed to bring their animals when they were rescued by boat or helicopter, or when evacuated from the Superdome in New Orleans because they would not let animals on public transportation, causing great anguish. It is reported that 15,000 animals were rescued from New Orleans (Irvine, 2009). In the United States, 70% of households have dogs or cats, so this may be an important issue to consider when thinking of children’s emotional health in a disaster.

Some research finds gender differences in how psychological impacts are experienced, expressed, or conveyed. Shannon and colleagues (1994) found that after Hurricane Hugo in the United States boys reported more behavior issues, while girls, especially African American girls, reported more emotional distress. Norris, Friedman, and Watson (2002) found that females—including children, adolescents, and adults—were more adversely affected; indeed, after some disasters women and girls were at least twice as likely to develop PTSD as men and boys. Babugura (2008) found that both boys and girls were upset to see dead livestock during droughts. Some of the boys in her study were responsible for herding livestock and watching the cows die was disturbing and upsetting to them. One 13-year-old admitted that he cried for a long time when the cow he was caring for died in the drought.

We may not have all the information we need about children and psychological impacts, as parents might underreport their children’s levels of post-disaster distress. In some cases, parents are so consumed with finding housing and food that they are not aware or have to overlook their children’s psychological needs (Mudavanhu et al., 2015). Sometimes children do not tell their parents about their emotional distress or anxiety because they do not want to burden their parents, as described by Fothergill and Peek (2015):

Children sometimes tell adults what they think they want to hear, rather than what they actually feel or believe. They may also withhold information to “protect” their parents. As a case in point, Mekana, one of the teens in our study, said she would “hide” her true emotions and hold her “feelings in” when she was around her mom. In the months following Katrina, her mother was angry and struggled with depression. Mekana eventually reached a point where she would simply tell her mother, “I do not feel like talking about this,” so that she could avoid crying or “being all sad” in front of her.

(p. 5)

Many children are not proactive in talking about their emotional distress with adults in their families, but adults also may not ask children and youth about how they are feeling, and there is an assumption that the children will adapt to the difficult situations after disasters (Babugura, 2008). This reasoning is related to the widely held myth that children are resilient, like little rubber balls that can just “bounce back” after a disaster without support (Fothergill & Peek, 2015). Thus, this would lead to the parents underreporting the children’s levels of emotional distress.

Research has found that children and youth do well with support, consistency, and warmth in a disaster situation from their parents and other significant adults in their lives (Ronan & Johnston, 2005). After the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010–2012 in New Zealand, Mooney and colleagues (2017) found that children coped effectively by using strategies such as emotional regulation, problem solving, and positive reframing. They also found that the children indicated an increase in empathy and a desire to help others. New to the field is the idea that children and youth themselves are sometimes able to provide critical emotional support and warmth to one another. They are able to empathize with their peers, provide comfort to their younger siblings, and be a listening ear to other children and youth. They also provide emotional support to adults, as noted by parents whose children gave them extra hugs, sang to them, and reassured them (Fothergill & Peek, 2015).

Emergency Response

The emergency response period is the immediate aftermath, the first minutes, hours, and days after a disaster, perhaps even up to a week, depending on the type and severity of the disaster event. There are several important considerations about children in this stage. First, what is the experience of children in the emergency response in general and specifically in emergency shelters? How are their needs met and how are they kept safe? Second, children need to stay with parents and guardians, but what happens if they are separated? Additionally, we need to consider children and youth’s safety in the disaster scene, their access to medical services, separation from friends and extended family members, and the specific challenges faced by children with disabilities.

When a disaster strikes, children often take protective actions, such as finding and depending on adults, seeking information, and helping others. Norwegian teens and children who were caught in the 2004 Southeast Asian Tsunami in Thailand used various coping strategies in the immediate aftermath. These included positive thoughts, such as telling themselves there would not be another earthquake or that they were safe in the jungle, and self-soothing behaviors, such as holding onto adults or giving first aid to others (Jensen, Ellestad, & Dyb, 2013). In some cases, children are separated from their families or guardians in the emergency response phase. This occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and many children were not reunited with parents for weeks or months. In addition, many children and youth were with one parent but not their second parent or extended families in the response period (Fothergill & Peek, 2015).

Many children move to mass shelters during the response phase. Children placed in evacuee shelters might face various hazards as many shelters are not designed as child-safe spaces. Some shelters contain multiple hazards such as dangerous chemicals, open electrical outlets, missing smoke detectors, and open tubs of water that are a drowning hazard for young children. In addition to safety, children staying in shelters need stability, routine, and continuation of education. Children can enroll in local schools and school buses can pick them up at the mass temporary shelters, as was done after Hurricane Katrina (Fothergill & Peek, 2015).

Research finds that there may be gender differences in this stage. Older girls are often expected to help take care of younger siblings and take on other caregiving responsibilities (Fothergill & Peek, 2015). Babugura (2008) finds that boys and girls are both taken out of school in droughts, but because girls have a heavier workload in the family, including collecting water for the household and caring for siblings, they are more likely to miss school than boys. Both boys and girls have fears of being separated from their families during drought disasters. In addition, research has found that women and girls in lower income countries have faced discrimination and abuse in the immediate aftermath of disaster. They receive less food; medical services; face greater safety risks; and have fewer rights, protections, and resources. They may be victims of family violence, and rape and assault by strangers. There is growing concern about the trafficking of girls and child marriage in the chaos of the post-disaster emergency period.

In addition, research indicates that children and youth’s experiences and outcomes in the emergency response might be affected by their race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, immigration status, and ability status. Past research has shown that the poor and people of color in the United States encounter difficulties in the response phase, due to where they live, language issues, issues of cultural sensitivity, isolation of neighborhoods or rural areas, fears of government and other institutions, and bias that leads some to receive less emergency assistance than others. In light of that, some children face greater difficulties and vulnerabilities in the response period. Children with disabilities may encounter inaccessible shelters, improperly trained staff, and discrimination (Peek & Stough, 2010). In some countries, children may be at risk to rushed and corrupt inter-country adoption. After the Haiti 2010 earthquake, safeguards and procedures were not followed and “expedited” adoptions did not allow for the children’s adoptability to be clearly established, did not give adoptive countries and parents a chance to prepare, and did not provide children sufficient time to recover in a familiar environment (Dambach & Baglietto, 2010).

There is evidence that children and youth have capacities in the emergency response. Depending on their age and the circumstances, children and youth could help with search and rescue, organization, information sharing and coordination on social media, and other tasks. In Hurricane Katrina, there were numerous examples of children assisting adults, other children, and themselves in the emergency response. One child put his uncle on a mattress and pulled him through floodwaters to safety, while another boy helped to rescue his sister from their apartment when the waters rose and they needed to escape (Fothergill & Peek, 2015). In New Zealand, after the Christchurch earthquakes, a “student army” of assistance-minded youth used social media to organize response teams all over the city. The youth, many of them university students, engaged in helping activities such as cleaning up soil liquefaction in the streets. In Nepal, it was found that children were able to provide more accurate and realistic assessments of damage and how many people were affected because unlike adults, the children were not politically influenced (Nikku, Sah, Karkara, & Ahmed, 2006).


What is recovery and what does it look like? The definition of the concept is not agreed upon. Bill Anderson (2005) argued that if we look at children and youth in our research we might go further in our understanding of the concept of recovery. Often, recovery is seen as a process that begins to lead a community back to “normal.” Anderson (2005) raised these important questions:

There is another line of research involving questions related to recovery that might also be worthwhile pursuing. For example, how do children perceive recovery? Is it when they return to school, their homes have been repaired or replaced, and their parents (or other significant others) have returned to their jobs or their places of business?

Children, Youth, and DisasterClick to view larger

Figure 3. Three post-disaster trajectories.

Reprinted with permission from Children of Katrina (University of Texas Press, 2015).

Fothergill and Peek offer this definition of children’s recovery (2015, p. 32):

we conceptualize children’s recovery as when a child has a semblance of stability, routine, well-being, and predictability in all spheres of life. With that in mind, we fully acknowledge that there are many children living at the margins of society before disaster strikes, who live a daily existence lacking any stability, sense of routine, or predictability.

After Hurricane Katrina, children and youth followed one of three primary and divergent post-disaster trajectories (see Figure 3): a Declining Trajectory, a Finding Equilibrium Trajectory, and a Fluctuating Trajectory (Fothergill & Peek, 2015). For many children, primarily those with preexisting disadvantages, their vulnerability factors tended to build over time and resulted in cumulative vulnerability. Other children, those who found equilibrium, were able to find stability because they had the greatest resource depth—financial, social, cultural, educational, and personal—and were able to use their family’s social and cultural capital effectively. The third group of children experienced a mixed pattern of stable and then unstable periods, due to a variety of factors including access to resources, previous vulnerability, and the presence of anchors who keep the children from falling through the cracks.

Children’s trajectories in recovery were most powerfully influenced by economic, social, and structural factors that disadvantaged (or advantaged) these children and their families both before and after Katrina. These forces affected their ability to find equilibrium, even though there was evidence that many of the children and youth were strong, resilient, hardworking, proactive, and used many creative problem-solving skills to cope and find solutions for themselves and their families. A child—regardless of individual traits or how “resilient”—cannot recover from a disaster without the necessary resources and social structural support.

Displacement is very difficult for children, as they have to move to new homes, enter new schools, make new friends, and they sometimes encounter new culture, food, and climate (Fothergill & Peek, 2015). Displacement, especially multiple displacements, often leads children and youth to miss school, which can have long lasting negative consequences. Schools and teachers can play a tremendous role for children and youth in the recovery period. Schools can implement important post-disaster curriculum and provide the day-to-day routine that children need. Teachers are instrumental in not only using this curriculum, but helping students as they recover. Teachers may be in “host communities” that are integrating displaced children into their classrooms, which presents unique challenges, or they may be in the disaster-affected community, teaching an entire classroom of affected children, who are perhaps dealing with the loss of homes, family members, neighborhoods. Many teachers themselves are displaced or dealing with loss at the same time. For children who evacuate from a disaster area and start new schools, the connections at the new school are critical. After Katrina, students did well if they felt attached to their new school and if they got positive support from adults at their new school and their friends (Barrett, Martinez-Cosio, & Barron Ausbrooks, 2008; Fothergill & Peek, 2015).

Community leaders need to prioritize schools in recovery, as they are important to both children and communities. In Christchurch, New Zealand, despite citizen protests, locally elected school boards were excluded from the decisions made about schools in the disaster recovery. The Ministry of Education decided to merge and close many schools in the aftermath, a move that Bronwyn Hayward (2016) called “especially destructive” because young people need their schools and the social networks and support they provide. She stated that it was “deeply disturbing” that the officials seized on an overwhelmed and grieving community to rush through controversial policies. She states that children and teens in that area continue to suffer from high rates of mental illness and youth suicide (p. 3).

Children can play an active role in recovery and listening to children’s voices, and supporting their involvement in recovery activities should be a priority. In Hurricane Katrina, children and youth helped other children, adults, and themselves, such as writing in journals and engaging in art (Fothergill & Peek, 2015). Vietnamese youth assisted in the Katrina recovery by translating materials and announcements, such as the location of relief centers, for their non-English speaking family members, and organizing against a landfill being planned for their neighborhood (Mitchell, Haynes, Hall, Choong, & Oven, 2008). In Nepal, children raised money for flood and landslide victims by singing door to door, and in India, after the 2004 tsunami, children did peer counseling and utilized game and laughter therapy with other children (Nikku et al., 2006). In New Zealand, teenagers felt that helping their community after the Canterbury earthquakes gave them a feeling of purpose and a sense of control (Pine, Tarrant, Lyons, & Leathem, 2015). As seen in Figure 4, children in the United States helped with recovery efforts after Hurricane Irene, such as these Vermont children sorting donated items.

Children, Youth, and DisasterClick to view larger

Figure 4. Vermont, 2011. Children helping in the recovery from Tropical Storm Irene.

Photo courtesy of Alice Fothergill.

Reconstruction/Risk Reduction

This section addresses reconstruction, rebuilding, and disaster risk reduction (DRR). This stage brings us back full circle to risk perception, understanding of hazards, preparedness, and mitigation. Rebuilding goes hand in hand with preparing for the future. As some have stated there is a “window of opportunity” for change in the disaster aftermath and often that window happens as communities reconstruct and decide to “build back” differently, with new priorities and new understandings of vulnerabilities.

In terms of children and vulnerability, often what we see in this stage is the discussion of how can we reconstruct in a way that reduces the risk to children in the future. This has been seen in the past with school reconstruction. For example, the 1933 earthquake in Southern California destroyed many school structures. The California legislature, with astonishing speed during the “window of opportunity,” passed a new law (The Field Act) requiring schools to be earthquake resistant (Olson, 1998; State of California, 2007). Since then, post-earthquake studies find that the legislation worked and new schools built under the Field Act have withstood subsequent earthquakes far better and saved lives and had lower reconstruction costs. Not a single public school building built under the Field Act has collapsed and no one has died in any earthquakes, due to the seismic design and strict inspection. Similarly, after the 1888 “Children’s Blizzard” in the Midwestern United States where many children died in their schools, communities decided to rebuild their schools to better protect students from storms (Laskin, 2004). In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Congress and former President George W. Bush established the National Commission on Children and Disasters in an effort to prepare for future disasters and decrease the losses of children by establishing new policies and procedures, such as child tracking and child reunification plans. However, most of the goals of the commission have not been met.

In addition, other school preparedness measures are put into place in disaster reconstruction, such as teacher education, curriculum changes, establishing safety drills, and innovative projects and programs. In Australia after the 2009 bushfires in Victoria, the Department of Education put into place several teacher training programs, designed to develop teacher skills to help students in future disaster (Trethowan & Nursey, 2015). In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, it was found that an “Edible Schoolyard” project was an important part of long-term recovery and reconstruction for children and youth, their families, the teachers, and the community around the school (Fakharzadeh, 2015). This unique school gardening program helped with the children’s food environmental knowledge, food security, and overall well-being. The children learned how to grow food, cook meals, understand the ideas of sustainability, and they often invited residents of the neighborhood for a community sit-down meal.

Children and youth themselves can play a large and important role in the reconstruction stage and should be involved in post-disaster planning when possible. In Zimbabwe, one study found that children wanted to be engaged and help their families reduce disaster impacts. Many hoped to educate the community about deforestation risks and some even wished for their families to relocate to safer areas (Mudavanhu et al., 2015). However, this study found that the adults admitted that they do not seek children’s views and do not have children participate in DRR related activities. Children said that they were not respected, listened to, or taken seriously, and adults do not ever involve them in the decision-making processes. Some of the adults felt that they wanted to protect them and not put them under any pressure.

When given the opportunity, children and youth can spearhead important reconstruction and disaster risk reduction measures. Mitchell and colleagues (2009) found that high school students in the Philippines led a campaign to have their school moved away from a landslide prone location. With education and advocacy, the youth were able to win a community-wide referendum to move the school to a safe place. Children and youth often wish to talk about what they went through and are happy to contribute to the process of planning for the next disaster. After Hurricane Katrina, children and youth wanted to share their stories about their experiences, such as their harrowing escapes, the loss of their homes (see Figure 5), and the long and difficult displacements specifically so that they can reduce the risk to and suffering of other children in future disasters (Fothergill & Peek, 2015).

Children, Youth, and DisasterClick to view larger

Figure 5. New Orleans, 2015. A family’s home 10 years after Hurricane Katrina. All that remains are the front steps.

Photo courtesy of Alice Fothergill.


In 2005, Bill Anderson called for more research on what “disasters do to children” in terms of their health, education, and employment (especially in poor countries), and recovery. He stated that “The disaster research community, then, should cast its net wider in order to include a younger catch” (p. 163). This was sage advice. In many ways, since he expressed that view over a decade ago, the disaster research community has been casting its net wider and has indeed been including a younger catch.

Scholars from around the globe have been focusing more intently on the experiences of children and youth in disasters and the field has grown and become more diverse in methods, research questions, and perspectives. For example, there is new recognition of the importance of children in DRR plans and projects and more understanding of the challenges of displacement. There has been more attention to the crucial role of schools and childcare centers for teaching children about hazards and making schools the center point of creating a culture of safety and prevention. There has been documentation of the importance of providing support to immediate family members in order to assist children, and recognition that many children also need their friends, extended families, and advocates in the wider community. There has been the emergence of research methods designed to place children more at the center of the research, aiming to hear their voices and ideas more clearly. The field is also placing children’s experiences in a broader cultural and socioeconomic context.

The field of children and disaster is also documenting how poverty increases vulnerability before, during, and after a disaster. Worldwide, and in the United States, children make up the majority of those living in poverty. It is estimated that one billion children in the world do not have at least one of the basic necessities, such as food, clean water, shelter, or health care (CARE, 2016). As stated by the international group, Save the Children:

Child poverty is a challenge which should bind us globally. In almost every country in the world children are more likely to be living in poverty than adults, and compounding this, their particular life stage makes them more vulnerable to its devastating effects with potential lifelong consequences for their physical, cognitive and social development. While children themselves suffer the impacts of their poverty most severely and immediately, the harmful consequences for societies, economies and future generations can be felt nationally, regionally and even globally.

(2014, p. 1).

People living in poverty around the globe are more vulnerable to disasters for a multitude of reasons, including the following: they are less likely to be able to prepare for disasters, live in more hazardous places, often do not receive or understand warnings, have a harder time evacuating due to a lack of resources, live in unstable or unsafe housing, have fewer political rights and voice, and have fewer savings for recovery. Children’s vulnerability is usually tied to the vulnerability of their families, often specifically their mothers. Women have been found to be particularly vulnerable to disasters due to a lack of economic and political resources, discrimination and oppression, and the demands of caregiving responsibilities. As we move forward in our analysis of children, youth, and disaster, we need to keep in mind the ways in which age intersects with multiple factors.

Social location—such as social class, race, neighborhood, resources, and networks—prior to a disaster often determines, at least in part, many of the children’s post-disaster outcomes. A child’s experience in a disaster could also be affected by language, type of housing, immigration status, gender, legal status, poverty, and disability issues. Girls, for example, are at risk for sexual violence and exploitation in some disaster aftermath situations. Thus, it is crucial to consider the child’s environment before and after the disaster; to realize that some children experience cumulative vulnerability, or an accumulation of risk factors; and that disasters may occur on top of other crises, such as drought, epidemics, or a family crisis such as divorce or death. It is also important to consider the experiences of children and youth using a human rights perspective.

Finally, one of the significant developments in the work on children, youth, and disaster has been the attention and recognition of their skills, talents, contributions, unique perspectives, problem-solving aptitudes, teaching abilities, creativity, and many other capacities. Anderson (2005) stated that children are not just passive victims or dependent observers, and that the actions that they take beg for documentation, which the field has begun. It has become clear that at the same time that children and youth are vulnerable, they also demonstrate important and often unnoticed capabilities and strengths, as they assist themselves and others before and after a disaster strikes.

As Anderson (2005) stated, recognizing children’s vulnerabilities and capabilities should be a research and policy priority. As disaster events increase globally, we need to consider how to reduce the suffering of children and youth, and assist them in disaster aftermaths, with the understanding that they are able to attain and maintain stability in their lives with social support and the mobilization of resources. The past decade has seen a steady stream of research, with a wide variety of research methods, often placing children and youth at the center of the research and paying closer attention to their experiences. This is a positive and welcome development but much more research is still needed. It is critical—especially as the risks to disasters continue to increase—that we fill our knowledge gaps and understand the vulnerabilities and capabilities of children and youth in disasters.


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(1.) This typology was developed out of conversations with Dennis Mileti in 1994.