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Effects of Natural Disasters on Children
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In the last section, we discussed helping parents handle two kinds of questions children may ask about emergency preparedness in an age appropriate manner. These two kinds of questions are, questions about safe rooms, and questions about armed police and military personnel.
In this section, we will discuss three differences among the different types of natural disasters, using the specific examples of hurricanes and earthquakes, and how they may affect children’s psychological well being. These three differences are, predictability, duration, and the scale of the disaster. We will also discuss three similarities common to all types of natural disasters, including cost and disruption, effect on families, and effects on children.
3 Differences Among the Different Types of Natural Disasters
♦ Difference #1 - Predictability
A first difference that influences the psychological impact of natural disasters on children lies in the predictability of the disaster. In the case of severe hurricanes, residents typically have up to a two weeks before the storm reaches land. This allows families to decide their level of risk, prepare for the event, and make preparations that can help minimize the traumatic impact on children. Disaster like earthquakes, however, give little opportunities for warnings, and as a result can be expected to be associated with greater numbers of casualties than other types of disasters.
Clearly, high casualty rates can add substantially to the impact of a disaster. Pynoos and colleagues, following a severe earthquake in Armenia, found that many survivors were most traumatized by the cries of friends and relatives trapped under rubble. In many cases, these trapped survivors could not be rescued, and the cries went on for many days as they slowly died from thirst, starvation, or injury. This aspect of unpredictable disasters like earthquakes adds significantly to the traumatic impact.
♦ Difference #2 - Duration
A second difference that influences the impact of natural disasters on children is the duration of the event, which relates to a child’s perceived life threat, as discussed on Section 8. In this case, children may perceive less life threat from an earthquake, as the initial impact of an earthquake usually is over within a few minutes, and the worst of the aftershocks are past after the first two hours. In contrast, families may spend more than 12 hours waiting in protected rooms of their houses for the threat of a severe storm, such as a hurricane or tornado, to pass.
♦ Difference #3 - Scale of the Disaster
In addition to predictability and duration, a third difference that influences the impact of natural disasters on children is the number of victims affected. Clearly, community-based disaster such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, considerable support is quickly available from outside sources, although the rebuilding process, as you know, may be difficult and slow.
In contrast, the effects of tornadoes and some earthquakes may be extremely localized, which may facilitate quick rebuilding, as unaffected community members may help those severely affected by the disaster. However, in these cases the affected community members may experience a sense of isolation, rather than the sense of community spirit and shared experience among survivors of a community-wide disaster.
3 Similarities Common to All Natural Disasters
Despite their differences, less predictable events such as tornadoes and earthquakes have, in my experience, three commonalities with predictable disasters such as hurricanes, which can help a therapist develop a framework for understanding children’s susceptibility to post traumatic stress after a disaster in more general terms.
♦ Similarity #1 - Cost & Life Disruption
The first of these similarities is the cost and life disruption caused by natural disasters. In the years between 1989 and 1999, earthquakes and hurricanes were the most costly natural disasters in the United States, according to a FEMA study. The high costs of both of these types of disasters are due to the extensive community destruction that resulted from these events.
♦ Similarity #2 - Effects on the Family
The high levels of community destruction involved in natural disasters lead the second similarity among different types of natural disasters, the effects on the family. Clearly, such devastation means that families may be uprooted from their neighborhoods and support systems, and forced to adjust to the loss of their homes and belongings. Although media coverage may die down after a few weeks, it may take months or years for families to reestablish their normal lives and routines, which seriously threatens childrens’ sense of security.
Families’ post-disaster lives may serve as daily reminders of the trauma. Schools may be overcrowded to acocmodate relocated students, damaged buildings and rubble may be left untended to for months, leaving visual reminders, and modern conveniences such as electricity and clean water may be unavailable or limited for weeks, or in the case of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, even longer.
♦ Similarity #3 - Effects on Children
In addition to cost and disruption, and the effect on families, a third similarity among different types of natural disasters is the effects on children. Clearly, is the case of difficult community recovery, children are more likely to experience symptoms of post traumatic stress. Consistent findings from the literature regarding children’s responses to disaster indicate that a substantial portion of child and adolescent victims experience moderate to severe levels of psychological distress that may last for years following the disaster.
Think of a child you are currently treating for post traumatic stress related to a natural disaster. How has the nature of the type of natural disaster this client experienced influenced his or her psychological functioning in regards to the similarities and differences we have discussed in this section?
In this section, we have discussed three differences among the different types of natural disasters, using the specific examples of hurricanes and earthquakes, and how they may affect children’s psychological well being. These three differences are, predictability, duration, and the scale of the disaster. We also discussed three similarities common to all types of natural disasters, including cost and disruption, effect on families, and effects on children.
In the next section, we will discuss three important concerns in treating children in recovery from a natural disaster. The three important concerns we will discuss are specific obstacles in treating children recovering from natural disaster, interventions in the initial recovery period, and interventions in the long-term recovery period.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Felton, J. W., Cole, D. A., & Martin, N. C. (2013). Effects of rumination on child and adolescent depressive reactions to a natural disaster: The 2010 Nashville flood. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 122(1), 64–73.
Kilmer, R. P., Gil-Rivas, V., & Roof, K. A. (2020). Associations between children’s self-system functioning and depressive and posttraumatic stress symptoms following disaster. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. Advance online publication.
Lai, B. S., La Greca, A. M., & Llabre, M. M. (2014). Children’s sedentary activity after hurricane exposure. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 6(3), 280–289.
Margolin, G., Ramos, M. C., & Guran, E. L. (2010). Earthquakes and children: The role of psychologists with families and communities. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 41(1), 1–9.
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