Children’s Behavior in Emergencies
Emergencies are characterized by lack of certainty, and cause changes and disruptions in our daily routine.
Emotional and behavioral responses differ from person to person in terms of their impact, but they are essentially alike. It is possible to point to common physical reactions such as fatigue, weakness, lack of appetite, and so on, as well as emotional reactions such as fears, anxieties, sadness, depression, difficulties in maintaining focus, and so forth.
Naturally, children in emergencies are also susceptible to these responses. May parents express concern regarding their children’s responses to emergencies and how to help their children cope. Indeed, in an emergency, we often see changes and even regressions in our children’s behavior. It is important to know that in most cases these are normal responses to an abnormal situation.
It is important to know that preparing for an emergency will minimize behavioral changes during the emergency itself. Prepare your children as much as possible for what might happen (if this is known). Drill the steps that need to be taken, and give them age-appropriate tasks. Prepare a complete “family emergency plan” that involves the children at their level of understanding and maturity.
General Principles for Dealing with Children in Emergencies:
- In an emergency, your children have special needs. Allow them to be more dependent if that is what they need in order to feel safe. Regressions in behavior are normal during times of anxiety and stress, and may be tolerated for a while (until the end of the emergency).
- Maintain your daily routine to the extent possible. Despite the emergency, ensure stability and protection by keeping to regular habits such as mealtimes, bedtimes, etc.
- Try to minimize the exposure of your children, particularly the younger ones, to shocking pictures in the media.
- Children express their feelings in different ways. Accept these differences, and react accordingly. Show your children warmth and try to keep them calm, and do not trivialize their feelings. It is important that the message they hear is, “We will overcome this together.”
- Talk with your children about what is happening. Listen to their feelings, give direct, short and truthful answers to their specific questions. Use words and concepts that are clear and familiar to the children. It is important to strengthen your children’s feeling of competence, and to give them positive reinforcement.
- Try to create opportunities for your children to spend time talking to other children their age.
It is important to know that your own behavior and responses during an emergency greatly affect your children. If you display a sense of security and competence, this will be reflected in your children’s feelings. In most cases, children return to their natural behavior within a few weeks after an emergency. If this does not happen, please seek professional help.
Responses Characteristic of Children:
The experience and knowledge accrued around the world in the field of children’s behavior in emergencies list a number of typical responses per age bracket and behavioral patterns. Every time you see phenomena, either during the emergency itself or afterwards, that vary in the extreme from those listed, please seek professional help (available through your local authority).
Ages 0-5 approximately
.Ages 0-2 approximately
Infants and toddlers in this age bracket do not speak or express their feelings. Nevertheless, they perceive and remember impressions of a stressful period. Sometimes, infants will be more nervous than usual, will cry more, and will demand more hugs and extra love.
Ages 3-5 approximately
Often, children in this age bracket will feel helpless and a lack of confidence. These children do not have the intellectual or linguistic capacity to cope correctly with the situation. At this age, children are most sensitive to their parents’ responses.
Typical behaviors: Behavioral regressions to earlier developmental stages, such as wetting themselves, fear of the dark, nightmares, dependency and clinginess to a parent, stuttering, loss of appetite, confusion, fear of staying alone, and a need to sleep in the parents’ bed, refusal to go to day care or kindergarten.
Responses: Give information and explanations that are age-appropriate, encourage the expression of feelings through play and art, give physical and verbal support, be very attentive to them, keep to an organized daily routine, lower somewhat your expectations of them in terms of their functioning, engage in games and conversations with parents and friends. It is all right to allow some regression for short periods of time.
Ages 6-11 approximately
Children in this age bracket are capable of understanding the meaning of a significant change in their lives such as loss and bereavement. Fears and anxieties are typical to this age. Some children might invent imaginary fears that seemingly have nothing to do with the situation. Others might show a desire to be involved in the smallest details of the emergency.
Typical behaviors: Regression, wetting, thumb-sucking, nervousness, dependency, aggression, fear of the dark, refusal to sleep alone, withdrawal from activities outside the home or with friends, headaches, etc.
Responses: Lots of patience, games and conversations with parents and friends, lower somewhat your expectations of them in terms of their functioning, give them responsibility and tasks as part of the family’s attempt to cope with the situation. It is all right to allow some regression for short periods of time.
Ages 12-14 approximately
In this age bracket, children attribute great importance to their peers’ responses. Your child needs to know that his/her fears are appropriate, and that his/her friends are experiencing them too. At this age, the emphasis is on reducing stress, anxieties and feelings of guilt.
Typical behaviors: Sleep disruptions, lack of appetite, rebelliousness, difficulties in daily functioning, physical aches and pains, withdrawal from friends, disruptions in studies, vying for attention, difficulties in maintaining focus.
Responses: It is important to encourage them to participate in social activities with children their age, to talk with their friends about the situation, to create for them a daily schedule with certain built-in expectations in terms of activities, to lower somewhat your expectations of them in terms of their functioning, to give them responsibility and defined tasks (make sure they are not too difficult) as part of the family’s attempt to cope with the situation.
Ages 15-18 approximately
Emergencies are liable to arouse fears of the family and the self being injured. The need for family togetherness is at odds with the natural tendency of this age bracket to expand personal autonomy. Usually, responses will be similar to those of adults. Sometimes, teens at this age will find it difficult to express their feelings to their parents. At this age, the peer group is more significant, and can be a very influential factor on coping with emergencies and stress.
Typical behaviors: Extreme moodiness, separation from their social circle, clashes with authority figures, headaches, depression, lack of focus, apathy, risk-taking, aggression, decreased achievements.
Responses: Encourage volunteer activity in the community, social activities and conversations with friends about the situation, a certain lowering of expectations, encourage (but do not impose) conversations with you about the situation within the family, give responsibility and tasks as part of the family’s attempt to cope with the situation.