Treating Traumatized Children

Psychologists have only recently begun to explore the impact of natural disasters on children. When Annette M. La Greca, PhD, a University of Miami psychology and pediatrics professor, started work after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, she thought that children would be back to their routines after 3 months. She found that while most children were resilient, many had significant reactions. And it can take a long time to recover. A study of 7,258 Katrina-affected children found that half the children surveyed in the 2005–06 school year had symptoms of post-traumatic stress and depression severe enough to meet the cut-off for referral to mental health services. The following year, the number was still high, with 41 percent meeting the criteria. Four years out, the number is still a little high. Certain factors put children at greater risk such as the death of a loved one, exposure to physical adversity (e.g. destruction of homes and schools or the loss of possessions or pets), poverty, and parents with mental health problems. Therefore, children in low-income countries may experience greater trauma.

When asked what advice they would give to psychologists and other responders in other recent disaster sites, disaster-response researchers offer several suggestions:

1. Acknowledge children’s distress. Parental support can mitigate distress and a lack of awareness can have serious consequences.

2. Keep developmental stages in mind. While all children need support, consistency and routine to get back on track, different age groups have different reactions and needs. Adolescents’ needs are often neglected. Chile’s disaster response community is worried about substance abuse and other forms of risk-taking among teens. To forestall problems, focus on strengths and put adolescents to work helping others and rebuilding their communities.

3. Use schools as resources. Post-disaster, schools can be a means of helping children reclaim normalcy, routine and structure. For example, an East Baton Rouge Parish elementary school that reopened in Katrina’s immediate aftermath focused on meeting students’ emotional needs and families’ practical needs. The principal also sought to develop a sense of community with parents and have the school serve as a central source of information and resources. The school hired a full-time parent liaison to communicate with parents, hold events for them and work to increase their awareness of supports and services in the area. The school also capitalized on partnerships in the community to host informational and resource fairs to help families learn about academic and social services, as well as help available from federal agencies. Although many students entered the school a grade or two behind, they demonstrated significant gains. Many reached grade level academic functioning or better.

4. Be aware of ancillary consequences. Disasters can often set into motion a cascade of problems for children. For example, children have much more sedentary behavior if they’ve been affected by a hurricane. Neighborhoods may be unsafe because they’re full of debris  and children may have lost possessions like bikes and rollerskates that keep them active. Stress related to a disaster and recovery can also cause tension in parents’ relationships that can interfere with children’s support systems.

5. Be sensitive to cultural differences. In American Samoa after the 2009 tsunami, kids were struggling. Some lost a parent, some lost siblings, some lost homes. Normally, psychologists and other mental health professionals would talk directly with the children, but that approach doesn’t work in American Samoa, where children aren’t supposed to speak in the presence of elders. Because of that cultural prohibition, counselors must first introduce themselves to the village high chief, explain why their program is important and ask permission to meet with children separately.

Clay, Rebecca A. “Treating Traumatized Children.” Monitor 41.7 (2010): 36. Print.

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