Recognising the needs of children during a crisis

Within literature, children are frequently labelled as being in ‘crisis’, a term which broadly refers to a significantly threatening and seemingly unresolvable situation [1] [2]. Children are often considered to be one of the most vulnerable social groups affected by crises due to their need for a safe and stable environment to promote healthy development [3]. They are usually disproportionately impacted during times of economic depravity [4], political conflict [5] and natural disasters [6] due to infringements placed on their rights to access education and to participate in decisions which affect their lives [7].

Despite this, understanding how children interpret adverse experiences is vastly under-researched, and their capacity for knowledge about difficult events is consistently undervalued [8]. Research has found that children often have a unique interpretation of policy which affects them, and they can feel that their voices are being disregarded within decision-making [9]. However, post-crisis interventions designed for children have been shown either to be ineffective [10] or suffer from a high drop-off rate [11] [12], reflecting the adult-centric lens through which they are developed. As such, an urgent examination of how children are being shaped by their experiences of devastation and disaster is of critical importance.

A failure to protect the participatory rights of children

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), and its near universal ratification by state parties of the United Nations (UN), has promoted developmental, survival, protection and participation rights as fundamental for children [13]. Subsequently, the UNCRC has gained recognition in education systems and curricula. However, when it comes to a crisis, the obligation of adults to uphold children’s rights to provision and protection seemingly ‘overwrites’ children’s participatory rights [7].

Fundamentally, child-centred research strives to respect the child as a person with rights and entitlement to participation [14]. This necessitates that children are placed at the centre of research about and in relation to them [15]. Reframing children as active citizens in learning from and rebuilding following a crisis event may, therefore, help them to address their experience, stimulating post-crisis growth [16].

Aims and study design

The following study aimed to investigate how children attribute meaning to the term, ‘crisis’ through their narrative discourse. Two secondary aims were; firstly, to encourage children to evaluate the support systems which may provide aid to them during a crisis; and secondly, to delineate what children perceive to be their role within crisis management.

To understand the unique perspective of children, this qualitative, exploratory study deployed semi-structured focus groups with 37 UK primary school children (aged 9-11). Data was analysed through a mixture of thematic analysis and narrative inquiry, with a particular focus on how meaning is co-constructed in children through discussing individual narratives [17].

A collaboratively constructed meaning of crisis

The study found that children demonstrated the capacity to build a collectivist understanding of crisis as a scalable and deeply personally affecting event. Specifically, children emphasised that the phenomenon of a crisis can be distinguishable based on several distinct markers. These included the number of deaths caused, the publicity an event received, its personal significance and the length of time it lasted. These factors were described to have variable and intermingling effects upon how easy a crisis was to overcome, with the most severe examples, such as war, terrorist attacks and health epidemics being characterised as resistant to recovery and something which is learned to be lived with.

Child agency within crisis management

Children demonstrated disillusionment with the authorities who they viewed as disregarding the true needs of children in times of crisis. However, these feelings did not automatically translate into a desire for more involvement within organising crisis management. Instead, children primarily sought greater inclusion within discussions about difficult events as they played out. Children often attributed their stress during a crisis as being higher and less manageable when they felt under-informed about why certain events were occurring and what impact they could realistically have in controlling them. It was assumed that adults should bear the responsibility of deciding how much to share with children with sensitive consideration of their age and emotional resilience. Overall, children perceived that information about difficult events was generally being unnecessarily and indiscriminately withheld from them to the detriment of their mental health.

Reconceptualising children as active social agents within crisis management

These findings paint the picture of children as active social beings, desperately seeking out reasons to attribute meaning to the difficult events they have experienced. Rather than protecting the ‘best interests of the child’ by perpetuating their ignorance, adults may, in fact, be eliciting unnecessary stress in children by avoiding troubling yet important conversations. In light of this research, post-crisis intervention programmes for children should create careful guidelines to direct adults on how to sensitively hold these discussions with children. The priority must be to educate in order to address misinformation and help them to anticipate potential future outcomes [18]. Doing so is likely to encourage children to feel a shared sense of responsibility with adults for tackling crises, thereby reducing stress-inducing helplessness.

Overall, this study further highlighted the need for a theoretical shift in the tradition of viewing children as objects of inquiry, towards including them as social actors with a unique perspective to adults [19]. Children are disempowered from becoming active participants in resolving crises which may reflect propagated narratives that children are unknowledgeable, vulnerable and incompetent [20]. Subsequently, policy which campaigns for child participation rights is being compromised and requires reform to better actualise children’s participatory rights.

Key Messages

• There is no clear conceptualisation of what it means to be a child ‘in crisis’, despite them often being one of the most vulnerable social groups affected.

• Current crisis response interventions appear ineffective at mitigating the damaging impacts on children.

• Children value their own inclusion within conversations regarding crises, mandated by adults in an age-appropriate manner.

• Children’s participatory rights, as cited by the UNCRC, are being compromised in times of crisis and require reform to be actualized.

Alex Bidmead

Alex Bidmead

Assistant Psychologist, Psychology of Education MSc graduate (University of Bristol)

Alex Bidmead is a Psychology of Education (MSc) graduate from the University of Bristol and is currently an Assistant Psychologist at an independent specialist school. Her professional background in residential childcare has involved cultivating safe and therapeutically supportive environments for children and young people with complex SEMH needs, utilizing principles of trauma-informed care.

Ms Bidmead’s research interests lie in evaluating the actualization of child agency and advocacy, with a focus on vulnerable children and young people. She presented her research on Children’s Rights and Crises: A Child-centered Perspective via an online portal through Edge Hill University on 7th December 2023:


References and Further Reading

[1] Boin A, Ekengren M and Rhinard M (2020) Hiding in plain sight: Conceptualizing the creeping crisis. Risk, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy 11(2): 116-138. 

[2] MacNeil Vroomen J, Bosmans JE, van Hout HP and de Rooij SE (2013) Reviewing the definition of crisis in dementia care. BMC Geriatr 13: 10.

[3] Agrawal N and Kelley M (2020) Child Abuse in Times of Crises: Lessons Learned. Clinical Pediatric Emergency Medicine 21(3): 100801. 

[4] Lawrence JA, Dodds AE, Kaplan I and Tucci MM (2019) The Rights of Refugee Children and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Laws 8(3).

[5] Jones L (2008) Responding to the needs of children in crisis. Int Rev Psychiatry 20(3): 291-303. 

[6] Curtis T, Miller BC and Berry EH (2000) Changes in reports and incidence of child abuse following natural disasters. Child Abuse & Neglect 24(9): 1151-1162. 

[7] Harper C, Jones N and McKay A (2010) Including children in Policy responses to economic crises. Report no. Report Number|, Date. Place Published|: Institution|.

[8] Hohti R and Karlsson L (2014) Lollipop stories: Listening to children’s voices in the classroom and narrative ethnographical research. Childhood 21(4): 548-562.

[9] Perry-Hazan L and Lambrozo N (2018) Young children’s perceptions of due process in schools’ disciplinary procedures. British Educational Research Journal 44(5): 827-846.

[10] Thabet AA, Vostanis P and Karim K (2005) Group crisis intervention for children during ongoing war conflict. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry 14(5): 262-269.

[11] Hendricks-Ferguson VL (2000) Crisis intervention strategies when caring for families of children with cancer. J Pediatr Oncol Nurs 17(1): 3-11. 

[12] Rhoades H, Rusow JA, Bond D, et al. (2018) Homelessness, Mental Health and Suicidality Among LGBTQ Youth Accessing Crisis Services. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev 49(4): 643-651.

[13] Assembly UNG (1989) Convention on the Rights of the Child. Available at: (accessed 3).

[14] Merriman B and Guerin S (2006) Using children’s drawings as data in child-centred research. The Irish journal of psychology 27(1-2): 48-57. 

[15] Toros K, Tiko A and Saia K (2013) Child-centered approach in the context of the assessment of children in need: Reflections of child protection workers in Estonia. Children and Youth Services Review 35(6): 1015-1022. 

[16] Mutch C (2011) Crisis, curriculum and citizenship. Curriculum Matters 7: 1-7.

[17]Savin-Baden M and Niekerk LV (2007) Narrative inquiry: Theory and practice. Journal of geography in higher education 31(3): 459-472.

[18] Harmey S and Moss G (2021) Learning disruption or learning loss: using evidence from unplanned closures to inform returning to school after COVID-19. Educational Review. DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2021.1966389. 1-20. 

[19] Brady L-M and Davey C (2011) NCB Guidelines for Research With Children and Young People.

[20] Oakley A (2002) Women and children first and last: Parallels and differences between children’s and women’s studies. Children’s Childhoods. Routledge, pp.19-38.