Protecting Kids From Horrors of Disasters

As the nation approaches a fifth week of near-constant news coverage of Hurricanes Katrina and now Rita, mental-health experts are cautioning parents about exposing young children to the troubling scenes and sounds of disaster zones.

“We know from studies that have been done in the aftermath of other major traumatic events in our nation, such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 terrorist attacks that children who spent a lot of time viewing television depictions of these events reported and experienced greater amounts of distress than children who viewed lesser amounts,” said Dr. John Fairbank, an associate professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center and co-director of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

“Continuous exposure to the horrific scenes of destruction, death and loss of the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast can have an effect on children and families throughout the U.S.,” Fairbank said. “Parents need to monitor the amount of exposure that children have to graphic images on TV of what’s happened in these areas.”

Parents and other caregivers should keep in mind how kids may react to the chaos and uncertainty of a hurricane, whether experienced through a screen or touched personally or through the experience of family.

“There are two sources of security for a child: the security of their parents and the predictability of their environment. During a hurricane, both are threatened,” said Los Angeles psychologist Robert Butterworth, who has treated a number of victims of past disasters.

Specifically, kids worry a great deal about being injured, killed or separated from their parents by a disaster, he said. These worries particularly show up at bedtime with youngsters afraid to sleep in their own beds, having nightmares, experiencing difficulty falling asleep or repeatedly waking up during the night.

Fairbank said that repeated viewings of disaster coverage can make young children think that an event is happening again and again. If parents are spending a lot of time watching the news, or “if we just have the TV on all the time in the background, and it’s affecting our own mood and level of anxiety, even in subtle ways, our children pick up on that and it affects their personal level of anxiety.”

Parents need to be able to talk rationally but sympathetically with children about their worries, while also offering reassurances about their safety, Fairbank and others say.

“Younger children particularly will be concerned about the safety of their own family, their friends and their school. They’ll be worried about ‘Can this happen here?’ A wonderful thing parents can do is explain to their children that they are doing everything that they can to protect them,” Fairbank said.

Older children may express more outrage about what they’re seeing, or make bold statements that they wouldn’t have been caught in such situations or would have been able to escape.

Dr. Victor Carrion, a child psychologist who heads the Early Life Stress Research Program at Stanford University’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, says having kids take part in fund-raising for relief efforts, for example, or even just going over the family’s own emergency plan, may help them feel like they’re contributing to a solution and having some control over what happens to them.

“Being part of relief efforts or fund-raising initiatives at their school or church is a very positive thing for children to do,” Fairbank agreed.

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(Contact Lee Bowman at BowmanL(at)