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date: 29 May 2017

Children, Youth, and Disaster

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Natural Hazard Science. Please check back later for the full article.

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.