By Traci Pedersen Associate News EditorReviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on January 17, 2011
Although a natural disaster can be traumatic for everyone involved, children are especially vulnerable. In fact, some children still exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) nearly two years later, according to University of Miami psychologist Dr. Annette La Greca, who led a study that focuses on children’s stress symptoms after a major hurricane.The findings suggest the importance of intervening within the first year following a natural disaster.Prior research has focused on the initial months following a catastrophic hurricane, or jumps ahead two or more years after the event. Thus, most current post-hurricane interventions are designed for children experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder two years or more after the storm
.The new study focuses on what is happening in between these two time periods — at nine months and then at 21 months after a hurricane, explains La Greca, professor of psychology and pediatrics at UM.“There have been no tested interventions developed for children who still show significant symptoms of PTS almost a year after a devastating hurricane,” says La Greca. “What this study shows is that there may be a need to test intervention programs to be used from several months to two years post-disaster, to keep kids from developing persistent stress.”The study included 384 children, in grades second through fourth, that had experienced category 4 Hurricane Charley. The powerful storm, which hit Charlotte County, Fla., in 2004, was responsible for 35 deaths, extended school closures and considerable damage totaling more than $16.3 billion .The results reveal that 35 percent of the children experienced moderate to very severe PTSD during the first time period at 9 months, and 29 percent reported these levels after 21 months.Although previous studies have shown that stress levels go down the first year after the hurricane, this study revealed that children who still show signs of stress near the end of the first year are likely to continue with symptoms a year later.“It’s more common than not for most children to overcome, on their own, the effects of exposure to a severe hurricane,” said Wendy Silverman, professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Florida International University (FIU) and co-author of this study.“Our findings that posttraumatic stress symptoms continued in such a high percentage of children almost two years after Hurricane Charley were somewhat unexpected.”The range of participants’ stress symptoms include recurring hurricane dreams, being tense, more distracted, feeling as if nobody understands them, sleep problems, and feeling more sad or afraid than before the hurricane. It was also found that in addition to experiences directly attributed to the hurricane, other stressful events during the child’s recovery period, such as parents’ separation or an illness in the family, had a “cascading effect” that intensified the stress.“Finding that hurricane-related stressors could contribute to other major life events was not necessarily counterintuitive, but, as far as I know, not documented before, and from that perspective, is a significant finding,” said Silverman.Peer support was found to be extremely helpful in protecting the child from the psychological shock of the hurricane.“For children that have experienced a destructive hurricane, restoring contact with friends provides a buffer to the negative experiences, helping kids have greater resilience and to adjust better to life after the disaster,”said La Greca.The researchers hope the study will lead to more effective support in helping children reduce stress levels and get back on track.The study is published online in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.