How to Help Kids Weather Catastrophic Events

Children can be deeply affected by natural disasters like hurricanes, and their caregivers need to know the signs, says child trauma researcher
September 18, 2017

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As the nation recovers from hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the only two Category 4 Atlantic storms to hit the United States in the same year, it’s important not to overlook some of the most vulnerable victims: children.

Even when they don’t exhibit obvious signs of stress, children of all ages are vulnerable to long-term negative effects from experiencing or even hearing about large-scale natural disasters, according to Jessica Dym Bartlett, J92, AG93, AG12, senior research scientist at the nonprofit research organization Child Trends. In the wake of events like Harvey and Irma, Bartlett said, caregivers should watch for subtle signs of distress and take steps to make sure children receive the reassurance and care they need to recover. 

“If they have the right supports in place, kids who go through these experiences can really have healthy, productive lives, and are in no way doomed to a negative future,” she said.

Bartlett received bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in child study and human development at Tufts, as well as a master’s degree in social work from Simmons College, and worked for more than a decade as a child and family psychotherapist, early childhood mental health consultant, and adoption placement worker for abused and neglected children. At Child Trends, she conducts applied research on child welfare, child trauma, and childhood adversity, identifying factors that contribute to resilience among young children and their families.

Tufts Now: How do children react differently to natural disasters compared to adults?

Jessica Dym Bartlett: Hurricanes and other natural disasters pose unique challenges for children, who are especially vulnerable—physically as well as psychologically—to those kinds of large-scale events.

“Research on resilience shows that having a nurturing, responsible caregiver is the most powerful buffer against the negative effects of adverse experiences, including natural disasters such as hurricanes,” said Jessica Dym Bartlett.The common misconception is “Oh, they’re too young to understand,” particularly for infants and toddlers. But just because they can’t verbalize what they’re seeing, hearing, and feeling, and may not fully understand, doesn’t mean it’s not affecting them in a major way. I think we oversimplify by saying that kids bounce back and are resilient because they’re young.

Science tells us otherwise. Early experiences like this actually affect the functions of the brain and stress response, and are related to all sorts of mental health difficulties. Children are at a higher risk than adults for developing PTSD and depression after these events.

What kinds of reactions should caregivers watch out for following natural disasters?

It’s important to understand that you might see a lot of different behaviors, including ones not seen before, and that kids can look just fine and happy one moment, and another moment start having a difficult time. Sometimes there’s a trigger, sometimes not, which can be confusing for many adults.

Sleeping and eating problems are pervasive across all ages, from children to adolescents to adults. But other depressive symptoms look different in young kids. Infants and toddlers, in particular, may cry more or be difficult to console, or have separation anxiety. One sign of post-traumatic stress is regressing—for example, if kids are losing their toilet training, when they had mastered this skill before.

Some preschoolers withdraw or have trouble relating to others, while others may become incredibly assertive and aggressive and have difficulty playing in constructive ways. Traumatic events may also heighten that tendency in children to gravitate toward repetition, so some children may want to act out a traumatic event in their play, or want to talk about a particular aspect of the disaster over and over.

In school-age children, depression might look like difficulty paying attention or not listening well to instructions, when they might have been doing just fine before. In fact, PTSD often gets misdiagnosed as ADHD, because school-age kids who are exposed to traumatic experiences can look hyperactive or inattentive.

What can children’s caregivers do to help?

Research on resilience shows that having a nurturing, responsible caregiver is the most powerful buffer against the negative effects of adverse experiences, including natural disasters such as hurricanes.

Caregivers can make sure they maintain their calm and resist the reflex to meet difficult behaviors with anger or frustration. They can communicate with children and express things like: “You’re safe and sound,” and “This is what’s happening and what we’re going to do to make things better.” On the other hand, it’s important not to hover or to be overprotective, which can communicate inadvertently that the world is not a safe place.

Keeping kids busy is critical, because boredom can intensify negative behavior, so it’s especially important to allow children to play and interact with each other to distract them from the stress and to maintain a sense of normalcy.

When is it time to worry about kids not adjusting?

One thing to keep an eye out for is if kids don’t seem to be comforted by talking about safety and well-being; another is if they can’t enjoy normal activities, or the only thing they can focus on is their fears and anxiety related to the hurricane. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network recommends that after six weeks, if you don’t see kids looking a little better, that’s a good moment to reach out and have someone professional help you and your child. Child Trends also has a list of resources is available.

For parents and caregivers of children who haven’t experienced the hurricanes but are hearing about its effects, what can you recommend?

Children are highly influenced by the images they see on TV, so it’s important to pay attention to what kids are seeing and hearing, and making sure you’re available to talk with them about that, if they want to.

Hearing about storms happening so close together is scary for kids—it’s scary for adults. But it’s not helpful to kids for adults to focus on  catastrophic events, such as how the world will be destroyed by climate change, and we should all be in a panic. We do want to reassure them that this is an exceptional experience that does not happen all the time.

It’s especially important to focus on hopefulness and positivity: examples of people helping each other and helping animals, and individuals making positive impacts in the world during challenging times. It can also be useful to have a menu of two or three age-appropriate things children might want to do to help, like collecting toys, clothes, or other donations. Kids really benefit from being a part of the healing process, and thinking of their world as a positive place where they can feel secure.

Monica Jimenez can be reached at monica.jimenez@tufts.edu.

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