Disaster Exacerbates Kids' Emotional Problems

Previously victimized children more likely to act out after a disaster

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) A new Oregon State University reveals children who have been exposed to natural disasters such as earthquakes and fires have a higher propensity toward emotional problems if they have had to contend with peer violence, domestic maltreatment and other issues of victimization. Researchers found that children who were exposed to disaster and who were also victimized experienced more anxiety, depression and aggression than those who had just experienced disaster.

Lead author Kathryn Becker-Blease, a child development psychologist with OSU, said the study clarifies that children who experience disasters have emotional and behavioral problems that may also be linked to other stress events in their lives. Findings from the study appear in a special issue of the journal Child Development that looks at disasters and their impact on children.

Becker-Blease and colleagues at the University of New Hampshire drew data from phone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 2,030 children ages 2 to 17 and their parents. Just over 4 percent of the children surveyed had experienced a disaster in the past year, and 13.9 percent reported exposure to at least one disaster during their lifetime.  Disasters included secluded events such as house fires and more encompassing catastrophes like large-scale earthquakes.  

Becker-Blease said the study showed children in families who did not provide a calm safety net with a predictable routine following a disaster were at a higher risk for emotional and behavioral problems.

“After a disaster, we tell parents to remain calm, to resume a routine, and to assure children that adults will keep them safe,” Becker-Blease said. “In reality, not all families provide [those kinds of environments].”

Bob Porter, a retired licensed clinical social worker who volunteers as a Disaster Mental Health responder for the Oregon Trail Chapter of the American Red Cross, said the study correlates with his 30-plus years experience in the field of disaster-related mental health.

“We advise them (emergency responders) to be aware that some of the reactions they are seeing in survivors may be related to other stressors and underlying issues, possibly even traumas, that children and other family members have experienced prior to the current event,” Porter said.

But news isn’t all bad.

Becker-Blease said disasters afford an opportunity for community organizations and emergency responders to come into contact with children who might be suffering silently and in need of support by shedding light on their prior emotional issues.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
September 15, 2010
Last Updated:
February 16, 2011