Extension Update from Megan Burda: Support Youth in Disasters

Extension Update from Megan Burda: Support Youth in Disasters

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Understanding the Impact of Disasters on the Lives of Children and Youth

With the recent weather events in the area, I thought it would be appropriate to to offer parents and others who work with children and youth an understanding of the impact of a natural disaster, such as a drought, on the lives of young people. Disasters can be immediate, as with a tornado, or long-term as with the effects of a drought. Disasters can also be natural weather-related disasters or human-made disasters such as airplane crashes, or the collapse of bridges or buildings. This fact sheet offers both parents and others information that can be used to first understand the effect of stress on the lives of young people and then to provide ways to support them during difficult times.

How Do Disasters Affect Young People?

Disasters, whether natural or human-made, often leave today’s families facing difficult times due to loss of parental employment, relocation, divorce, death of a family member and other catastrophic events that create stress for all members of the family. For example, ranching and farming families find their lives greatly influenced by weather- related events such as floods, fires, droughts and blizzards. These events can often cause short-term disruptions within the family or they can be long-term and change the lives of family members dramatically. Understanding the emotional reactions of children and young people to a disaster such as a fire, drought, or hurricane is important when trying to provide support. The American Academy of Pediatrics Work Group on Disasters (1995) suggests that young people experience disasters depending on several factors:

  • Proximity to the impact zone;
  • Awareness of the disaster;
  • Physical injury sustained;
  • Amount of disability;
  • Witnessing of injury or death of family member or friend;
  • Perceived or actual life threat;
  • Duration of life disruptions;
  • Family and personal property loss;
  • Parental reactions and extent of familial disruption;
  • Child’s pre-disaster state; and
  • Probability of recurrence.

The American Academy of Pediatrics Work Group on Disasters (1995) further suggests that there are five primary responses seen in children resulting from loss, exposure to trauma, and disruption of routine:

  • Increased dependency on parents or guardians;
  • Nightmares;
  • Regression in developmental achievements;
  • Specific fears about reminders of the disasters; and
  • Demonstration of the disaster via posttraumatic play and reenactments.

The after-effects of a disaster can clearly disrupt the lives of children and young people. The disruptions and the accumulation of stressors that occur in their lives due to the disaster, regardless of type or duration of the disaster, are what determine the level of negative effects in the lives of children.

When to Get Help

The lists above provide an overview of many typical responses to stress. However there are times when responses become more intense. Children and young people should be referred to a mental health professional for evaluation if:

  • Symptoms signal a very unusual change in behavior or appearance and persist for more than 2 weeks;
  • Several different kinds of symptoms are seen (e.g., appears sad, complains of headaches, and sleeps in class);
  • Symptoms are seen in different settings (e.g., in different classes, outside of school, at home, with peers);
  • The child threatens or actually tries to harm him or herself or
  • The child shows signs of abuse or neglect.

It is important to note that a disaster, no matter the type or duration, can dramatically influence the lives of all members of the family, even those who may seem too young to worry or notice. In fact, children and young people often find that their own lives have changed dramatically. For example, they may not have the same level of parental support available to them, as their parents are often less available both physically and emotionally due to their need to cope with the disaster. Further, the roles and routines within the family may no longer be the same. Families may have to relocate, familiar items and places may no longer be available, and family finances may change dramatically.

These changes present a challenge for the children and young people within the family, as there is often a sense of lost reliability, cohesion, and predictability that can be distressing to children and youth. Understanding a child’s possible reaction to stress created by a disaster is the first step in providing support both within the family and, in certain cases, the support of mental health providers.

Source: Lynne M. Borden, Extension Specialist and Associate Professor, The University of Arizona, Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences

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