Helping Kids Cope With Katrina

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Children and Coping with Disaster

During the round-the-clock TV coverage of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, many children have been viewing the horrific scenes coming from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. What are the psychological effects of this exposure on children who are far from the actual disaster?

John Fairbank, M.D., associate professor of medical psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center and co-director of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, said research findings from earlier catastrophes can provide some clues about the effects of kids' increased TV viewing during Katrina and its aftermath.

"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 on the World Trade Center, 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 Fairbank.

"We know that the types of symptoms children experience vary by their age and level of development. The reactions of young children and adolescents, for example, will be quite different. In younger children, you see some of the characteristic symptoms of traumatic stress reaction, such as sleep disturbance, nightmares, clinginess and not wanting to be apart from their loved ones.

"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 United States," Fairbanks continued. "One of the things that we recommend to parents is that they monitor the amount of exposure that children have to graphic images on TV of what's happened in these areas."

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Fairbank said that repeated viewing of disaster coverage may lead very young children to believe that the event itself is happening again and again.

"Children will also monitor their parents' reactions to the events. If we are spending lots 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 our level of anxiety, even in subtle ways, our children pick up on that and it affects their personal level of anxiety."

Fairbank said parents should limit children's viewing of disaster coverage. He recommends turning off the TV and trying to re-establish a normal routine as soon as possible. It is also important to talk with kids about their fears and concerns and, above all, to provide reassurance about their safety, he said.

"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 that parents can do is to explain to their children that they are doing everything they can to protect them."

It's also a good idea, according to Fairbank, to involve children in special projects to help disaster victims.

"Being part of relief efforts and fundraising initiatives at their school or church is a very positive thing for children to do," he said.

The National Center for Child Traumatic Stress (NCCTS) is co-located at Duke University Medical Center and UCLA and is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The center coordinates the activities of 54 centers in 32 states that make up the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

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