What are some of the psycho-medical and social effects of
natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina on children living through this
Natural disasters like hurricane Katrina and other events
like the 9/11 terrorists attacks have grave implications on all persons that
live through these traumatic events. The effects on our most fragile population
sometimes go unrecognized in our youngest patients,
The effects of a disaster are medicated by personal
experience, parental reaction and the child’s developmental competency at the
time of the disaster. It must be stressed that like adults who experience
traumatic stress so do children. The only difference is that the symptoms are
manifested differently and they sometimes go unrecognized.
A disaster is generally defined as a dreadful event that
causes destruction to property, loss of life and sometimes displacement from
children from their parents. The effects of these disasters on children are
generally never uniform or universal in nature. Depending on the child’s age
and developmental stages and many other factors determine the psych-medical
manifestations of traumatic stress.
In is widely known that children react differently according
to the level of direct exposure to the event. Manifestations and symptoms are
more deleterious if the child and family immediately affected (loss of loved
one’s or destruction of their home), and by the fearful and distressing
reactions of their parents. Events that produce few disruptions in the child’s
social and living situation are less damaging than chronic events that lead to
lasting changes in the child’s social environment. A good example would be of a
child who has lost his home and parents to the floodwaters in New Orleans and because of that has been
placed in the foster care system because no other family members can be found.
Traumatic stress affects more seriously those children that are most directly
involved with the incident, but it can also affect children that are safe in
other states indirectly viewing the horrific events on the television or
observing the initial and ongoing responses of their teachers at school and
their parents at home.
For children that experience a traumatic event, there is
some degree of behavioral and social adjustments problems that should be
expected. These are a child’s normal response to an abnormal event. After
exposure many children experience fears, anxiety and depression. If the problem
is recognized in time, they can be helped to cope with their stress, and the
symptoms will subside. If these symptoms are ignored, the child will become
more susceptible to the prolonged consequences of PTSD.
After a sever traumatic event such as Hurricane Katrina,
parents and caregivers can expect these affected children to go through
different stages in the process. In the first stage, which generally is
immediately after the disaster, children have reactions of fright, disbelief,
denial and grief. Sometimes children are relieved if loved ones have not been
In the second stage of a traumatic event, this occurs a few
days to weeks after the disaster, children have manifestations of anxiety,
sadness depression, hostility and aggressive behavior towards others. Sometimes
these children become apathetic, withdrawn, they have sleep disturbances, and
they demonstrate play that mimics themes related to the event. This type of
behavior is a normal part of the recovery process and generally last a couple
For children that have been exposed to this hostile
environment for a prolonged period of time, they become at risk for developing
PTSD later in life often associated with violent and delinquent behaviors. In
such extreme cases it is necessary for these children top receive counseling
form a mental health professional.
Children of different ages interpret traumatic events such
as disasters, war and abandonment differently. Their developmental ages
individually influence their reactions to such events. Medical and
Psychological interventions should be aga appropriate.
The response to younger infants and children is exemplified
by mood, anxiety, and behavioral manifestations. These children are unable to
understand the intentions and logic of the situations they are placed into. As
a result the young child in more concerned with the consequences of the event.
Even though little children may have no cognitive understanding of the
disastrous event, the destruction, abandonment and loss of loved ones can lead
to regression and detachment in order to protect their inner psyche from the
surrounding conditions. In the first year of life, such experiences can
manifest themselves with increased crying, irritability, exaggerated startle
response, and separation anxiety. Toddlers and pre-school aged children can
experience sleep terrors and nightmares, and a regression in behavioral skills
manifesting themselves as helplessness, clinging behavior and temper tantrums.
In the older school-aged child, they demonstrate traumatic
stress through trauma related play and aggressive behavior. Like the younger
children, they too may become withdrawn, apathetic, and exhibit behavioral
problems and other forms of somatization, such as abdominal pain, headaches
without any medical problems.
With the worldwide violence, natural disasters and
abandonment of thousands of children into orphanages, traumatic stress is a
common sometimes ignored entity in the pediatric population. It is incumbent
upon the medical profession a whole to identify those children ( ex: victims of
the 9/11 disaster, survivors of Hurricane Katrina and any
Post-institutionalized child ) no matter how well adapted they appear
Immediate identification of these survivors and a timely
referral to a mental health care professional provides the only opportunity for
these children to improve the outcomes and not suffer from Post Traumatic
Stress Disorder or PTSD later in life.
By Mark Lerner, Ph.D. President of
the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic
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