Children in Disasters


Wherever I go to talk about the brain in disasters, I get asked one question in particular: What about children? How does a child’s brain respond to a disaster? Is it different than an adult’s brain?

Yes, very different. And the differences make children both better and worse at responding to disasters. It depends on the age of the child and the type of disaster, of course, along with a million other caveats. But here’s what we know:

* Before a disaster strikes—Young children have extremely plastic brains. They can learn faster than adults, making them ideal targets for hands-on training. They are also free of the baggage that adults carry—the fear of looking foolish or overreacting. That’s why firefighters visit schools. Children stop, drop and roll. They don’t just talk about it. And the brain learns much better by doing than by talking. To quote this Time story on a child’s brain:

“While new synapses continue to form throughout life, and even adults continually refurbish their minds through reading and learning, never again will the brain be able to master new skills so readily or rebound from setbacks so easily.”

During a disaster—As with adults, children will draw upon whatever patterns were in their heads before a disaster strikes. They have fewer patterns in there, however, which can help or hurt. In fires, frightened children sometimes hide in closets—making them hard for firefighters to find. They may be afraid when they see a firefighter in full gear. But again, there is opportunity. If a child has rehearsed evacuating her house from her bedroom in advance, that will help. If a child has seen a firefighter in full gear, that gives the brain something to work with. You can now buy smoke detectors that let you record a voice message. This is a fabulous idea. A child will respond much better to a parent’s specific, aggressive command—in a very serious voice—than to a loud beeping squawk.

After a disasterResearch into why children develop posttraumatic stress disorder is actually very encouraging, I think. It shows that the two things that correlate with stress symptoms are under our control: 1) Amount of TV coverage of the disaster viewed by the child and 2) Parental distress.

Those two factors can matter more than almost anything else. If a child sees TV coverage of a building collapse, that child may think the building is collapsing over and over again. If it were up to me, CNN and FOX would run ticker warnings to this effect during coverage of disasters. That’s how dangerous this footage can be.

Likewise, if a parent over-shares his fear and anger over a terrorist attack with a child, the child may have no way to put that into perspective. As the National Center for PTSD explains in an extremely helpful fact sheet:

“Although you yourself may be anxious or scared, children need to know that attacks are rare events. They also need to know that the world is generally a safe place.”

After Katrina, Congress created a National Commission on Children and Disasters to study how we can build children into smarter preparedness and response plans. They are supposed to send their recommendations to Congress next year. I look forward to seeing what they come up with. Here’s hoping they are creative—and built around the way children’s brains actually work.