Children may experience long lasting trauma from either living through or even viewing images of natural disasters such as hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, experts say.
"Compared to adults, children suffer more from exposure to disasters, including psychological, behavioral and physical problems, as well as difficulties learning in school," Jessica Dym Bartlett, a senior research scientist at Child Trends, said in that organization's news release.
It’s reasonable to think that children who have actually had to live through the devastation of being in a hurricane could be traumatized and suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome, (PTSD.) But child mental health experts say that even kids who have seen pictures of the damage and watched news reports can also be traumatized and may develop similar symptoms of PTSD such as depression and anxiety.
"Understand that trauma reactions vary widely. Children may regress, demand extra attention and think about their own needs before those of others -- natural responses that should not be met with anger or punishment," Dym Bartlett said.
To help children through this difficult time, parents should create a comforting and safe environment where their child’s basic needs are met. Keep to regular schedules and other routines that provide children with a sense of safety and predictability.
Children that stay busy are also less likely to have continuing negative thoughts; boredom can worsen adverse thoughts and behaviors. Youngsters are less likely to feel distress if they play and interact with others, Dym Bartlett noted.
Limiting your child’s exposure to the continuous images and descriptions of disasters coming from news reports is also helpful, but it’s not necessary to try and eliminate everything pertaining to catastrophes. It’s better to help children understand what has happened in age-appropriate language and to empathize hope and positivity. Reassurance that you are there for them and will do all that is humanly possible to protect them can ease some of the fear associated with disasters.
"Find age-appropriate ways for children to help. Even very young children benefit from being able to make a positive difference in others' lives while learning important lessons about empathy, compassion and gratitude," Dym Bartlett said.
If a child continues to have difficulties coping for longer than six weeks after an event, like the hurricanes, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network recommends seeking professional help.
Parents and caregivers should also make sure that they take care of their own emotional health during these trying and sad times.