Anxiety, depression and aggression — study after study suggests that these emotional and behavioral issues have a greater chance of wreaking havoc on children who experience the trauma associated with a major disaster.
A new study once again confirms this assertion, but findings also suggest that many of the children who suffered the greatest behavioral and emotional fallout out from disasters had also experienced negative life events that may have exacerbated these issues.
The national study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, found that children who had been exposed to victimization through parental maltreatment, domestic abuse or other violence on the peer level were found to have greater issues with depression, anxiety and aggression than children who had been exposed only to a disaster.
Researchers noted that the study revealed a wide range of responses and reaction to disasters, especially in the case of adolescents.
“We have known for a long time that children who experience disasters have emotional and behavioral problems that seem to be related to the disaster. This study makes it clear that, for some children, those problems may also be related to other stress events in their lives,” said lead author Kathryn Becker-Blease, a child development psychologist with Oregon State University.
A representative national sample was taken of 2,030 children falling between the ages of two and 17. Researchers, including Oregan State’s Becker-Blease and other colleagues from the University of New Hampshire lead the study, which consisted of phone interviews with both children and parents.
Of the random sample, 4.1 percent had been exposed to a disaster in the last year, while 13.9 percent reported exposure to disaster over the course of their life.
Disasters were predefined to encompass everything from small house fires to large-scale earthquakes.
Findings also revealed that of those children who were identified as having experienced some other kind of victimization through the course of their lives, only 70 percent had received counseling for resulting mental health issues.
The authors of the study suggested that by reaching out to children experiencing trauma from disasters, community organizations can also potentially identify those who may have been previously suffering from emotional issues without help or support.
“It is a good time to screen children, to put them in contact with people who can help them because issues such as sexual abuse or neglect are still incredibly stigmatized,” Becker-Blease said. “So a disaster like a fire or flood can put these children in contact with social services that can then identify other issues beyond the immediate trauma.”
Suggestions made to parents after a disaster to diminish the emotional fallout for children typically include instructions to maintain a calm home environment while returning to typical routines. In homes where children do not feel safe, Becker-Blease emphasized that there will be a much greater risk for behavioral and emotional issues to become heightened.
“In reality, not all families provide calm, safe places with predicable routines,” she pointed out, adding that “we should be thinking about ways to help those families, while recognizing that most families cope with disasters well with less support.”
This study’s findings can be found in a special issue of Child Development that specifically focuses on disasters and children.