Children and Disaster: Is my child OK?

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Paul H. VanValin, PhD

VanValin Eden staff Pics 231resizedHurricane Sandy is called a “super storm” because of the devastating effect it had on so many people.  Sandy’s impact is still being felt by many people.  Over 3 months after the storm, there are 1900 homes that do not have energy and the Red Cross distributed over 36,000 meals in one day.  After the cleanup, fix-up, and power-up is complete, there is the emotional recovery that may take a lifetime for some people.

Everyone in the world is at risk for disasters from man-made or natural events. Disasters are overwhelming events for everyone because of the impact on loss of life, property damage, negative economic impact, and life style changes.  Disasters affect physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual health.  Disasters are so far out of the realm of our normal experience that they exceed our normal coping skills and resources.

Disasters can traumatize children.  Emotional trauma is defined as a disordered emotional or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury.  The threat or experience of death is one factor that impacts the extent of trauma for children.  Witnessing death, having someone die, or the threat of death can be traumatic and result in a number of traumatic symptoms.  Children are more vulnerable to the threat of death than adults because of their dependency.  The loss of a parent for a child, or threat of losing a parent, is as devastating as the threat to one’s own life.

Children of any age can be traumatized, however, factors such as age, exposure and the amount and type of loss make a difference in the perception of threat.  I was talking with a very distraught father October 10, 2001 in a church service in lower Manhattan.  His 6 year-old daughter had watched the World Trade Center Disaster from her elementary school window.  He was terrified that she would be permanently damaged by the event.  She had a high level of exposure, she saw people falling to their death, and she had classmates that experienced significant losses.

I asked simple questions about her daily function in order to understand her experience.  I asked about her sleep, appetite, playfulness, mood, ability to attend school, and willingness to share about her daily experiences.  I quickly assessed the impact on her home, her schedule, and her social support.  All “fine,” he said.  She really had very little change, response, or impact from the event other than witnessing it, which for a sensitive, mature 6 year-old could have been traumatic.  I then asked if she was a mature 6 year-old or seemed somewhat immature.  He told me that she was quite immature, a little hyperactive, and rather irresponsible compared to other 6 year-olds.  I also asked him if she knew how to tell time yet and his answer was “no.” You can imagine his relief when I told him that his daughter was functioning normally and probably would be relatively unaffected by the disaster.

I told him that there seems to be a relationship between understanding the passing of time and understanding death.  Around 7 years of age children seem to understand the permanence of death and often have nightmares for one to three months.  This happy little girl did not yet fully understand what she was viewing that day.  She was no more affected by it than a TV show.  I am sure that she had classmates that became anxious and depressed, had nightmares, and would require treatment for acute and post-traumatic disorders, but this child was fine.  Though she had to go to school in another building for a while, the most important parts of her world, her identity, and her security were intact.

I then talked to him for about 20 minutes about his own stress  and stress management.  I gave several suggestions for his own coping because his anxiety could affect her.  Get back to a normal schedule as soon as you can.  Sleep. Reduce alcohol consumption.  Have fun.  Exercise and eat good food.  Be grateful.  Stay connected with your social support.  Social support is the single best buffer against the negative effects of stress.  We need each other.

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