In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, which recently devastated the Philippines, the importance of recognizing the traumatic impact of natural disasters on the mental health of children and adolescents is brought freshly to mind in addition to concerns for children’s physical health and safety. Survival quickly becomes the top priority and “survival means not only that we address children’s health, education and psychological well-being, but that we make sure their safety is given top priority,” according to Tomoo Hozumi, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) representative in the Philippines. Hozumi further explains that recovery efforts in the Philippines are currently aimed at establishing a safe place “for children to begin the process of recovering from the loss of loved ones and the total upheaval in their lives,” but this is just the first step in the recovery process.
Natural disasters and trauma are of course not unique to any one corner of the world. Natural disasters and traumatic events can happen anywhere, and parents should be aware of the special psychological needs of children in relationship to such events. In order to deliver the most effective and necessary care as parents and guardians to children who have suffered such traumas, we will take a step back from the immediate crisis in the Philippines and examine the effects disaster and trauma have on children in a more universal sense. The following handout is designed to help parents recognize a disaster and the resulting trauma, and provide some strategies for mental health support.
A disaster is a significant calamitous event that generally involves injury or loss of life and destruction of property. A disaster can affect both small and large populations and is typically outside the scope of normal human experience. It is widely accepted that the psychosocial effects in children after disaster are influenced greatly by the nature of disaster itself, the level of exposure to the disaster, the extent to which the children and those around them are personally affected by the disaster, and the individual characteristics of children, including their age and stage of development. In addition, children are uniquely affected by disasters because they are afflicted not only by the trauma of the event but also by their parents’ fear and distress. Parents are often suffering from the psychological effects of the disaster or traumatic event themselves, but it is important to understand that a parent or guardian’s reaction to a traumatic event has a significant bearing on the experience of the child.
What should parents look for?
Traumatic reactions in children can vary in degree and intensity based on the developmental stage and age of the child, but here are some general indicators of the traumatic impact that can result from a disaster event:
- Avoidance: Children may try to avoid reminders, activities, thoughts, and feelings related to a traumatic event. Children may withdraw from social events and interactions, block out or forget details of the traumatic event, or appear numb or unable to express a wide range of emotional responses.
- Re-experiencing: Children may show evidence of reliving aspects of the event or of having recurring images and thoughts of the traumatic event. Children may engage in role-playing or acting out of the trauma-related event, have nightmares of the disaster or trauma, or display a distressed reaction to reminders of the trauma.
- Heightened agitation: Children may show agitation and elevated responsiveness to reminders of the event. Symptoms of elevated responsiveness include sleep problems, nervousness, irritability, crying, anxiety, appetite changes, and inability to concentrate.
What should parents do to help prevent trauma from disasters?
Preparedness is a key in offsetting some of the short- and long-term effects of experiencing a traumatic event. Natural disasters in particular can be unpredictable, so having a general emergency plan in place with a family evacuation plan, designated meeting place, and communication strategy can be a great way to mediate a child’s anxiety before the disaster takes place. Identify evacuation routes and prepare an emergency kit so that children know there is a definite plan in place for a disaster. Practice and review your evacuation plan — predictability goes a long way in creating a sense of stability and familiarity in the emergency situation in the wake of a disaster. All of these preparations will also benefit the emotional and psychological state of the adults involved in disaster situations, too. As previously mentioned, the traumatic impact of a disaster on a child is directly related to the impact of the disaster on the parents or guardians, so any advance measures are an opportunity to make sure that you as a parent are prepared to handle a disaster situation to the best of your ability, in turn creating a better experience for your child.
In the event of a natural disaster, be sure to maintain your routines and normal activities, providing your child with as much of a safe and predictable environment as possible. Ask your child to help — giving children the opportunity to help out will build their sense of usefulness and control during stressful times. This could be volunteering in the disaster-stricken community or household, but be mindful of any negative reactions to disaster-related stimuli or situations. Be patient and calm with your child. Provide clear and factual (and age-appropriate) information regarding the traumatic situation while limiting media coverage of the event, both prior to and post. Sensationalized and graphic content may elicit feelings of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty in children prior to disaster, and children may re-experience these same negative feelings when confronted with media coverage after the event.
How can parents help children cope?
Parents can play a significant role in helping children cope with the trauma of a natural disaster. Encouraging a child to take up a new hobby or continue a commitment to an existing hobby will serve as a distraction from the events of a natural disaster. Writing in a journal or maintaining contact via mail, email, or phone with close friends to share feelings and experiences while continuing a normal sense of connectedness can assist in positive adjustment and coping. Social events are a good opportunity to facilitate this communication, too. Volunteering money, time, or resources can help children create a sense of accomplishment and purpose that assists with personal recovery.
Of course, seek professional help if your child is having difficulty coping. Parents and school professionals should pay close attention to children’s feelings and behaviors. The process may be a gradual one, but children should be able to slowly resume family and social activities. If you see your child struggling with this readjustment, do not hesitate to seek professional help and consultation.
Sources: UNICEF, American Academy of Pediatrics, NYU Child Study Center, www.AboutOurKids.org.