What Does PTSD Look Like in Preschoolers After the Hurricane?

Since 1992, the year that Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida, Annette M. La Greca has been investigating how best to define post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in children.

Dr. La Greca, distinguished professor of psychology and pediatrics at the University of Miami (UM) has been trying to gain a better understanding of how disasters impact the mental health of children, to identify which children in particular may need support services post-disaster, and to know which key factors help most with recovery.

In a new study, published in the International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, La Greca, along with UM graduate student BreAnne Danzi, examine how well the “preschool” definition of PTSD identifies school-aged children with significant distress after a major hurricane.

“The good news is that most children are resilient, even after a very devastating storm,” said La Greca. However, children have different ways of expressing distress than adults.

The findings come as recent hurricanes have led to massive evacuations of children and families and wreaked havoc: Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Hurricane Irma in Florida and the Caribbean, and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The study involved 327 children (ages seven to 11) from six elementary schools in Galveston, Texas, who were directly in the path of Hurricane Ike, a Category two storm that made landfall in September 2008.

The researchers found that the preschool definition of PTSD identifies more distressed children than the typical “adult-based” definition. Thus, the preschool definition may be more helpful when screening elementary school-age children (ages seven to 11) for PTSD-risk.

Additional research by La Greca and her team also found that two-thirds of children who are initially distressed after a disaster recover naturally over the course of the school year. They found that children who do recover are more likely to have greater social support from friends and family, fewer life stressors in the disaster’s aftermath, and more positive coping skills than those who remain chronically distressed.

“We now know from research that some children who endured a stressful evacuation or experienced scary or life-threatening events during the storm are at risk for a poor recovery over time,” she said.

“Children who need extra support include those who report feeling anxious or depressed, as well as stressed, and who lack social support from friends and family. They also have multiple stressors to deal with after the storm. All of those factors contribute to poor recovery and less resilience.”

“There is no doubt that hurricanes and other extreme weather events can be stressful for children and for adults,” said La Greca. “But as with many stressful experiences, a little extra support can go a long way.”

Source: University of Miami