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How do children recover from the trauma of a natural disaster?

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have consecutively devastated regions of the United States and other countries, displacing many children and families indefinitely. Stress-inducing experiences in childhood can lead to emotional instability and, in some cases, even lay the groundwork for mental health issues. Researchers set out to find a method of identifying which children need more attention and support after a natural disaster.

Annette M. La Greca is a renowned professor of Psychology and Pediatrics at the University of Miami. La Greca teamed up with graduate student BreAnne Danzi to determine the best way of defining post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in children. This interpretation could make it easier to recognize which children most urgently need support services in the aftermath of a weather catastrophe.

For their study, the researchers looked into how accurately the “preschool” definition of PTSD describes school-aged children who have survived a natural disaster. 327 children between the ages of 7 and 11 participated in the study. The children were all students from elementary schools in Galveston, Texas, that were in the direct path of Hurricane Ike in 2008.

The research team found that the preschool definition of PTSD better described the stress experienced by children after a hurricane than the typical adult definition. Therefore, it should be used when screening elementary school-aged children for PTSD.

The study, which is published in the International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, also revealed that two-thirds of children who are distressed after a disaster recover naturally over the course of the school year. These children reported having more support from friends and family, fewer life stressors after the storm, and more positive coping skills than the children who were chronically distressed.

“We now know from research that some children who endured a stressful evacuation or experienced scary or life-threatening events during the storm are at risk for a poor recovery over time,” said La Greca. “Children who need extra support include those who report feeling anxious or depressed, as well as stressed, and who lack social support from friends and family.”

La Greca and colleagues have developed a guide called “After the Storm,” which is available for parents to help their children recover after a hurricane. The workbook points out that resuming normal activities such as exercise, a good sleep schedule, and a healthy diet can help speed up the recovery process. La Greca added that helping others in need and identifying things to be grateful for can also help children regain a healthy perspective on life.

“The good news is that most children are resilient, even after a very devastating storm,” said La Greca.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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