Common Reactions to Crisis by Ages

Diane Sasser, Hebert, Lanette G., Fox, Janet E.  |  9/9/2005 10:04:40 PM

Most children can put into perspective tragic or sad events that don't affect them personally; however, some children may be at risk of more extreme reactions because of personal circumstances. Adults should contact a professional if children exhibit the following over an extended period. Symptoms may differ, depending on age.

Preschoolers often react to stress by displaying regressive behaviors such as thumb sucking, bedwetting, clinging to parents, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, fear of the dark and withdrawal from friends and routines.

Elementary School Youth
Some children react to fears by developing physical symptoms—stomachaches, headaches, feeling "sick" or complaining of a lump in the throat. Children may become fearful about being left alone. They may demonstrate regression and begin acting younger than their ages. Common behaviors for a younger child may reappear in an older child, including bedwetting, thumb sucking, clinging to parents and fear of strangers. A child may experience problems at bedtime. He/she may start having nightmares, not wanting to sleep alone or becoming more afraid of the dark, falling asleep or remaining asleep.
In addition, children can experience difficulty thinking and concentrating. They can become easily distracted, feel confused and disoriented and often find it difficult to stay focused. Many reactions can be triggered by smells, objects or activities that are associated with the trauma.
Frequently a child is unaware of the triggers and of the behavioral changes that occur. Older children who know about loss may feel sad, angry or afraid the event will happen again. Peers may share false information that parents or caregivers need to correct. They may focus on details of the event and want to talk about it all the time. This may disrupt their concentration and affect how well they do in school.

Middle and High School Youth
Adolescents in particular are affected by tragic events. Some preteens and teenagers respond with risky behaviors. This could include reckless driving or alcohol or drug use. It is important to be aware that adolescents may turn to illicit substances as a way of coping with their intense emotions. Others may become afraid to leave home. Those who have started demonstrating some independence may shift and want to spend more time with their families. They may cut way back on how much they hang out with their friends. They can feel overwhelmed by their intense emotions and yet be unable to talk about them. Those emotions may lead to increased friction, arguing and even fighting with siblings, parents/caregivers or other adults.

They may also be fatigued or have problems getting to sleep or waking up in the middle of the night unable to go back to sleep. They may show a lack of interest in favorite activities.

Special-Needs Children
Children who are ventilator-dependent, use a wheelchair or must stay in bed may have even more pronounced reactions to threatened or actual crises. The same is true for youth with other physical or mental limitations. They might display feelings like distress, worry or anger because they have less mobility than other people. They may need extra verbal reassurance or more explanations, hugs, comfort and other positive physical contact.

Here’s Why This Happens:

Not all children respond in these ways. Some might have more severe, longer-lasting reactions that are influenced by the following factors:

  • Direct exposure to the disaster: whether they were evacuated or saw people injured or dying would affect them, as would being injured themselves or feeling their own lives were threatened.
  • Loss: the death or major injury of a family member, close friend or pet.
  • Ongoing stress from the effects of disaster: this includes being away from home, losing contact with friends and neighbors and losing things that were important to them, like a favorite toy or access to a playground. Their lives are disrupted when they no longer have a usual meeting place or their routines and living conditions change.
  • An earlier experience of trauma: including having lived through or observed abuse or a major disaster.

In most children, these behavior changes will fade. Children who were directly exposed to the disaster can get upset again, and signs of behavior related to the event may return if they see or hear reminders of what happened.

Reference: American Red Cross and Center for Disease Control, Maintaining a Healthy State of Mind. Retrieved September 4, 2005.

Made available by:
Diane D. Sasser, Ph.D., Professor, Family Development; Janet Fox, Ph.D., Professor, Volunteer Development and Leadership; and Lanette Hebert, 4-H Coordinator, Southwest and Central Regions

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