Natural Disasters and Post-Traumatic Resilience in Children

By Daniella Rueda, CEI Intern 

As we come close to the end of hurricane season and as we consider the loss of lives and disruption produced in recent California wildfires, it becomes critical to discuss a topic that is often disregarded: The post-disaster trauma children experience. More specifically, what happens with children? How are their lives and schooling disrupted and what are the long-term consequences? In the recent years, with global warming and radical climate change, the disastrous effects brought on by hurricanes have increased dramatically. Consequently, an estimated 175 million children will be negatively affected by weather related disasters in the coming decade (Kousky, 2016). These effects come in the form of physical and psychological trauma due to the loss of homes and loved ones as well as detriments in well-being.

Child Trauma. It is important to know that child trauma comes in various shapes and forms. A child is prone to experience trauma by undergoing a life-threatening event or by witnessing a loved one experience a devastating event. This is particularly significant for young children as their safety depends on the safety of a parent or guardian. Traumatic reactions vary in intensity and will most likely disrupt the child’s everyday life. These reactions include feelings of terror or helplessness, depressive or anxiety symptoms, problems forming attachments, loss of previously acquired skills, academic difficulties, and loss of bowel or bladder control. Often during or after natural disasters such as hurricanes, children suffer a variety of forms of trauma, including the harrowing effects of malnutrition, which has been linked to higher blood pressure and cholesterol, along with higher risk of infant death. In 1998 after Hurricane Mitch hit Nicaragua, a study showed that from a sample of 2764 households, 14 percent were four times as likely to be undernourished than those unaffected by the disaster (Kousky, 2016). To make things worse, disasters often destroy health infrastructure making it more difficult for families to access medical care. As a result, unhygienic conditions expose children to infectious diseases bringing long term impacts (Kousky, 2016).

How Education Is Affected. Often times, the way children’s education is negatively affected by natural disasters is overlooked. Not only can a disaster destroy schools themselves— it can also destroy homes, displacing families and forcing children into the labor force to contribute to the rebuilding of the family’s economic status. In Nicaragua, for example, communities displayed a 58 percent increase in labor force participation by children aged 6 to 15 years of age following Hurricane Mitch. Consequently, children were forced to postpone or abandon their studies. Additionally, many families are left without homes. Molly Adams, director of federal programs in Aransas Independent School District in Rockport, Texas, reveals that 96 percent of the district’s student body experienced homelessness following Hurricanes Harvey and Maria. In Puerto Rico, a total of 26,674 students were lost between September 2017 and January 2018 due to turmoil brought on by Hurricane Maria. Lastly, a total of 250 schools are expected to close by June 2018 due to a steep decline in student population and budget cuts implemented following the storm. Evidently, disorder brought on by hurricanes does more than just generate a sense of fear and trauma in children. Natural disasters impede students from being able to live their everyday lives— adding to trauma, causing a sense of helplessness and hopelessness while forcing them to dive into adulthood much faster than anticipated.

Combating Post-Disaster Trauma. Although there are various programs out there to help families and children combat post-disaster trauma, it is certainly worth acknowledging programs that implement trauma-focused therapy such as mindfulness and proper nutrition as ways of helping the brain thrive after having gone through trauma. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Save the Children, an organization aimed towards helping children overcome crises, developed Journey of Hope, an evidence-based program geared towards teaching children the skills needed to cope with trauma such as resilience (Timsit, 2018). The program consists of eight sessions, each covering different themes such as safety, worry, fear, and self-esteem. During each session, kids work in a group to overcome each theme by participating in fun activities that teach them to build resilience and remind them that they have a community of support to aid them in returning to normalcy. As a result, more than 85,000 Journey of Hope attendees have succeeded in overcoming their trauma (Timsit, 2018). In fact, a study published in Springer Science+Business Media suggests that the program “is effective in enhancing peer relationships and prosocial behaviors” (Power and Bui, 2016). Evidently, this goes to show the importance of informing people about the benefits of programs such as Journey of Hope which provide families and children with wholesome ways of overcoming trauma brought on my natural disasters and such.

References

Kousky, C. (2016). Impacts of natural disasters on children. The Future of Children, 26, 1, 73-92.

Mccausland, P., Gamboa, S., Acevedo, N. (2018). Lives interrupted: Hurricane left kids scrambling for normal. NBC News.

Peterson, S. (2018). About child trauma. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Powell, T.M. & Bui, T. (2016).Supporting social and emotional skills after a disaster: Findings from a mixed methods study.School Mental Health 8,106.

Timsit, A. (2018). The life-changing class teaching Texas kids resilience after Hurricane Harvey. Quartz.

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