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DHS news release

Dec. 11, 2007

Contact: Ken Palke, 503-947-5286

Kids in Oregon's disaster areas need TLC, says psychologist

The aftermath of Oregon's wind and flood disaster may be affecting children much more than we think, said a disaster psychologist working with the Oregon Department of Human Services.

"Children require special care following a disaster," said Laurel Hughes, Psy. D., who has assisted in more than 50 American Red Cross disaster relief efforts since 1993.

In the past, it was felt that children were not affected significantly by trauma and adversity and should bounce right back after a disaster, but that's not so, Hughes said.

"We now know that children are more vulnerable than adults, whose life experiences have helped them learn to cope with difficult circumstances. Children rely more on family and community connections for coping," she explained. "They react to disaster because of exposure to trauma and to losses and disruption of routine. They worry about becoming separated from their parents or the disaster happening again."

Disaster fallout
After a disaster, children commonly display these symptoms:

  • Increased dependency on parents or guardians.
  • Nightmares.
  • Regression -- behaving as would a younger child.
  • Specific fears involving reminders of the disaster, such as wanting to avoid water after a flood.
  • Demonstrating their internal state by means of play, reenacting disaster scenarios or their feelings about it.

Gender, age bring different responses
Hughes said children's reactions may differ based on gender and age. Boys may take longer to recover and act out their feelings with aggressive, antisocial and violent behavior. Girls tend to think about the disaster, experience greater distress and discuss the incident and their emotions surrounding it.

A child's age and development level may also affect reactions, she explained. For example, children under 2 may not understand what is happening, but they're sensitive to the distress of their caregivers and loss of usual routine.

Hughes said "magical thinking" common to preschoolers may lead them to blame themselves for the disaster. School-age children may worry about friends, loss of fun activities and academic difficulties -- some may fear being separated from their parents and refuse to go to school. Adolescents, already prone to taking ill-advised risks, may feel invulnerable after they've "survived" a disaster and engage in greater risk-taking.

Prevention or counseling
"Symptoms that last for a month or so after a disaster are normal, but if they are severe or persist, children may benefit from counseling," Hughes said.

She offered these tips for parents to speed recovery or prevent more serious symptoms from developing:

  • Reestablish a routine.
  • Offer patience and more attention; listen to and reassure your children when they talk about the disaster.
  • Arrange for children to participate in activities they enjoyed before the disaster, including family activities.
  • Find age-appropriate ways for children to help with or contribute to recovery efforts.
  • Seek assistance from schools, groups of friends, sports leagues, faith-based organizations and other community groups that provide activities and support for children.

"Most importantly, remember that children depend on the family system for most of their coping ability," said Hughes. "If parents are strongly affected, children will be too. "Children's distress increases as their parents' distress increases and a vicious cycle can be created. What will help children most is for parents to monitor their own reactions and take care of themselves."


Main Reference: Psychosocial Issues for Children and Families in Disasters: A Guide for the Primary Care Physician, National Mental Health Information Center, SAMHSA. http://mentalhealth.samhsa.gov/publications/allpu​bs/SMA95-3022/default.asp