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Kids face post-storm trauma

Children often face post-disaster emotional challenges.

BY HEATHER MOYER | BALTIMORE | September 25, 2004


"Be honest with your children, tell them you are doing all you can to prepare and that you will face whatever happens together as a family."

—Tom Hazelwood


With the repeated hurricanes in Florida, children and adolescents often face tough challenges in handling the emotions that come with the storms.

A study conducted at the University of Miami School of Medicine found that preschool-age children commonly exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after exposure to a life-threatening hurricane.

Numerous relief agencies focus on assisting kids through the tough times, yet parents also ask how they can both prepare their children for disasters as well as respond after the storms move through.

"We have to remind and reassure our children that we are there to protect them," said Tom Hazelwood, executive secretary for disaster response in the U.S. for the United Methodist Committee On Relief (UMCOR). "Young children are often scared of storms and we should remind them that we have gotten through them before and you will again this time."

Most disaster response agencies - government and non-profit - have developed materials to help parents get their kids through the hard times. Parents are advised to let kids ask questions and be honest with them. Experts say responses shouldn't overwhelm them or mislead them, though.

"Be honest with your children, tell them you are doing all you can to prepare and that you will face whatever happens together as a family," Hazelwood explained. "We must never forget to remind ourselves and our children of the faith to which we hold. The Lord has promised to be with us in all circumstances. We never face the storm alone."

Another way to help kids cope is to let them take part in disaster preparations. Letting younger children pick out activities to do during the storm and allowing teens to gather flashlights or fill the bathtub with water gives them more control of the situation.

"Working as a family and letting everyone have a part in the preparations will help everyone feel less powerless," said Hazelwood.

After the storm, though, many children may still have problems. The University of Miami study says based upon reports from mothers, almost 17% of children exposed to a major hurricane showed symptoms of PTSD one year after and another 11% continued to show symptoms eighteen months after. Researchers say PTSD places young children at increased risk for failure to achieve normal development in cognitive, social, and emotional skills.

Families shouldn't hesitate to request professional help if children continue to struggle.


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