We live in dangerous times, and children often see and hear more than we parents would like. Just the other morning my 7-year-old was asking me what was going on with the American soldiers and Afghan villagers in a photo on the front page of the paper. That was just hours after a 5 a.m. earthquake jolted us awake in Washington, D.C.!
Children are resilient, but experiencing traumas like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, or the Gulf of Mexico oil spill can threaten their physical and mental health. Even watching frightening or traumatic images on TV can spark PTSD-like responses. Given that we can't always protect our children from disaster, what can parents do to minimize harm? Quite a bit, it turns out. In a new issue of Child Development, researchers who have studied children affected by disasters including the 2004 tsunami, 9/11, and Katrina found that how parents respond has a great deal to do with how well children survive adversity. Their findings include:
Boys and girls respond differently to trauma. Teenage boys who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina were less aggressive and more confident than boys who were not displaced, while girls were more depressed. Researchers at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center also found that boys who had higher levels of stress hormones were more confident, while the girls with higher levels of stress hormones were more depressed. Teenagers may have very different responses to distressing events based on their gender, and parents should be aware that these responses may suggest a child is struggling.
Small children are greatly influenced by how their mothers respond to frightening events. A team led by researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine found that preschoolers who lived in New York during the 9/11 attacks had more behavior problems such as emotional reactivity and aggression if their mothers were depressed and had symptoms of PTSD. Children of mothers who were just depressed, or who didn't have symptoms of either depression or PTSD, did much better at handling the stressful days following the terrorist attacks. The American Psychological Association offers advice for adults on recovering from trauma.
Very young children's struggles are often overlooked in the wake of a disaster. People tend to presume that very young children don't see or don't understand traumatic events. Actually, they tend to be affected more than older children, and adults. The researchers investigating the response to 9/11 found that help was offered to young children far less often than it was to older children and adults. As a result, young children can have continuing problems with aggressive behavior. Parents need to know that even preschoolers can struggle in the wake of disaster, and that parents may need to make extra effort to find counseling or other help for them. Here's advice from the APA on helping preschoolers cope in times of war and other traumas.