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Natural disasters can be especially traumatic for children and youth. Experiencing a dangerous or violent flood, storm, or earthquake is frightening even for adults, and the devastation to the familiar environment (i.e., home and community) can be long lasting and distressing. Often an entire community is impacted, further undermining a child’s sense of security and normalcy. These factors present a variety of unique issues and coping challenges, including issues associated with specific types of natural disasters, the need to relocate when home and/or community have been destroyed, the role of the family in lessening or exacerbating the trauma, emotional reactions, and coping techniques.
Children look to the significant adults in their lives for guidance on how to manage their reactions after the immediate threat is over. Schools can help play an important role in this process by providing a stable, familiar environment. Through the support of caring adults school personnel can help children return to normal activities and routines (to the extent possible), and provide an opportunity to transform a frightening event into a learning experience.
Immediate response efforts should emphasize teaching effective coping strategies, fostering supportive relationships, and helping children understand the disaster event. Collaboration between the school crisis response team and an assortment of community, state, and federal organizations and agencies is necessary to respond to the many needs of children, families, and communities following a natural disaster. Healing in the aftermath of a natural disaster takes time; however, advanced preparation and immediate response will facilitate subsequent coping and healing.
Tornadoes. Like earthquakes, tornadoes can bring mass destruction in a matter of minutes, and individuals typically have little time to prepare. Confusion and frustration often follow. Similar to a hurricane, people experience sensations during tornadoes that may generate coping challenges. It can be difficult to cope with the sights and smells of destruction. Given the capricious nature of tornadoes, survivor guilt has been observed to be an especially common coping challenge. For instance, some children may express guilt that they still have a house to live in while their friend next door does not. In addition, a study following a tornado that caused considerable damage and loss of life revealed significant associations between children’s disturbances and having been in the impact zone, been injured, and having experienced the death of relatives.
Possible Reactions of Children and Youth to Natural Disasters
• Preschoolers—thumb sucking, bedwetting, clinging to parents, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, fear of the dark, regression in behavior, and withdrawal from friends and routines.
• Elementary School Children—irritability, aggressiveness, clinginess, nightmares, school avoidance, poor concentration, and withdrawal from activities and friends.
• Adolescents—sleeping and eating disturbances, agitation, increase in conflicts, physical complaints, delinquent behavior, and poor concentration.
A minority of children may be at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms can include those listed above, exhibited over an extended period of time. Other symptoms may include re-experiencing the disaster during play and/or dreams; anticipating or feeling that the disaster is happening again; avoiding reminders of the disaster; general numbness to emotional topics; and increased arousal symptoms such as inability to concentrate and startle reactions. Although rare, some adolescents may also be at increased risk of suicide if they suffer from serious mental health problems like PTSD or depression. Students who exhibit these symptoms should be referred for appropriate mental health evaluation and intervention.
Immediately Following a Natural Disaster: Information for School Crisis Teams
Identify children and youth who are high risk and plan interventions. Risk factors are outlined in the above section on children’s reactions. Interventions may include individual counseling, small group counseling, or family therapy. From group crisis interventions, and by maintaining close contact with teachers and parents, the school crisis response team can determine which students need supportive crisis intervention and counseling services. A mechanism also needs to be in place for self-referral and parental-referral of students.
Support teachers and other school staff. Provide staff members with information on the symptoms of children’s stress reactions and guidance on how to handle class discussions and answer children’s question. As indicated, offer to help conduct a group discussion. Reinforce that teachers should pay attention to their own needs and not feel compelled to do anything they are not comfortable doing. Suggest that administrators provide time for staff to share their feelings and reactions on a voluntary basis as well as help staff develop support groups. In addition, teachers who had property damage or personal injury to themselves or family members will need leave time to attend to their needs.
Engage in post-disaster activities that facilitate healing. La Greca and colleagues have developed a manual for professionals working with elementary school children following a natural disaster. Activities in this manual emphasize three key components supported by the empirical literature: (a) exposure to discussion of disaster-related events, (b) promotion of positive coping and problem-solving skills, and (c) strengthening of children’s friendship and peer support. Specifically:
Emphasize children’s resiliency. Focus on their competencies in terms of their daily life and in other difficult times. Help children identify what they have done in the past that helped them cope when they were frightened or upset. Tell students about other communities that have experienced natural disasters and recovered (e.g., Miami, FL and Charleston, SC).
Support all members of the crisis response team. All crisis response team members need an opportunity to process the crisis response. Providing crisis intervention is emotionally draining. This is likely to include teachers and other school staff if they have been serving as crisis caregivers for students.
Secure additional mental health support. Although more than enough caregivers are often willing to provide support during the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, long-term services may be lacking. School psychologists and other school mental health professionals can help provide and coordinate mental health services, but it is important to connect with community resources in order to provide such long-term assistance. Ideally these relationships would be established in advance.
Important Influences on Coping Following a Natural Disaster Relocation. The frequent need for disaster survivors to relocate creates unique crisis problems. For example, it may contribute to the social, environmental, and psychological stress experienced by disaster survivors. Research suggests that relocation is associated with higher levels of ecological stress, crowding, isolation, and social disruption.
Parent’s Reactions and Family Support. Parents’ adjustment is an important factor in children’s adjustment, and the adjustment of the child in turn contributes to the overall adjustment of the family. Altered family functions, separation from parents after natural disaster, and ongoing maternal preoccupation with the trauma are more predictive of trauma symptomatology in children than is the level of exposure. Thus, parents’ reactions and family support following a natural disaster are important considerations in helping children’s cope.
Emotional Reactivity. Preliminary findings suggest that children who tend to be anxious are those most likely to develop post-trauma symptomatology following a natural disaster. Research suggest that children who had a preexisting anxiety disorder prior to a natural disaster are at greater risk of developing PTSD symptoms.
Coping Style. It is important to examine children’s coping following a natural disaster because coping responses appear to influence the process of adapting to traumatic events. Research suggests that the use of blame and anger as a way of coping may create more distress for children following disasters.
Research suggests that long term difficulties following a natural disaster (e.g., PTSD), are most likely to be seem among children who experienced any of the following:
• Had threats to their physical safety.
• Thought they might die during the disaster.
• Report that they were very upset during the disaster.
• Lost their belongings or house as a result of the disaster.
• Had to relocate in the aftermath.
• Attended schools following the disaster that had multiple schedule changes, double sessions or a lot of disruptions.
Consequently, crisis response team members need to identify students who experience these risk factors and closely monitor their status. These students may require long-term coping assistance.
Shane R. Jimerson, NCSP, University of California, Santa Barbara
Stephen E. Brock, NCSP, California State University, Sacramento
©2003, National Association of School Psychologists, 4340 East West Highway #402, Bethesda, MD 208
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