Helping Elementary-Age Children Cope with Disasters

By Shen, Yih-Jiun; Sink, Christopher A. | Professional School Counseling, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Helping Elementary-Age Children Cope with Disasters

Shen, Yih-Jiun, Sink, Christopher A., Professional School Counseling

On September 11, 2001, the unthinkable occurred. Millions of people around the world witnessed on television a horrifying calamity. The towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and a section of the Pentagon were destroyed in acts of terrorism. A good percentage of onlookers were school children, who along with their families, viewed intently many days as newscasters reported the tragedy and its overwhelming toll on human life. In checking with various school personnel and children in Texas and Washington following the event, we found that many school counselors provided little or no targeted assistance to staff and students on how to psychologically process their feelings. This disturbing trend led us to question how well school counselors have been prepared to effectively respond to unanticipated disasters.

Unlike this recent tragedy, other unpredictable upheavals like earthquakes and tornadoes may not invite a protracted national spotlight. In fact, in the aftermath of a major calamity, it may take people decades to acknowledge their concerns and adapt accordingly. The negative psychological impact on children can vary from mild to severe and last for many months, even years. Children often share similar responses to a range of disasters (e.g., mild to major earthquakes, floods, mud slides, hurricanes, tornadoes, brush fires, bombings; Farberow & Gordon, 1981; Mark & Layton, 1997). Since disasters are more common and destructive than most people realize, the utility of advanced research and preparation should not be undervalued.

Recognizing the potentially deleterious impact of disasters on U.S. society and anticipating the need for mental health interventions, the Disaster Relief Act of 1974 (1974) mandated, among other services, crisis counseling for all victims. Nonetheless, how individuals cope with their adversity and what they need in terms of intervention seem to differ by age group (New York State Office of Mental Health, 2001). For instance, contrary to popular belief, most children do not "grow out" of trauma, nor are they more adaptable than adults (Galante & Foa, 1986; Gordon & Wraith, 1993). During the recovery process, children often lack the maturity to cope effectively with the complex repercussions of a disaster (Haizlip & Corder, 1996; Hofmann & Rogers, 1991; Stein, 1997). Moreover, these events can lead to uncomfortable or painful emotions in children, including mild to severe posttraumatic stress reactions. Given that distressing events in early life often influence the psychological makeup and personality development of the affected ones (Gordon & Wraith), elementary-age children require specialized attention, including intervention methods aimed explicitly at their level of personal and social development. If school counselors do not take the threat seriously and are inadequately educated, even a minor disaster may cause, for example, anxiety and nightmares in children that may be downplayed or go unaddressed.

Because they understand the mental health needs of children and youth, school counselors are perhaps a community's "first line of defense" following a major disturbance (Shen, in press). Adopting a proactive approach, they can be empowered in crisis situations to support children and their families. Unfortunately, the approaches to disaster prevention and intervention have received nominal attention in the school counseling literature. Specifically; in this article, we (a) address the effects of disasters on elementary-age children and their needs for mental health; (b) suggest possible school-based interventions; and (c) provide a case study of a traumatized first-grader, demonstrating how child-centered play therapy can be used in school settings. Before reviewing these interventions, we consider in more depth the responses of younger students and their mental health needs following disasters.

Children's Reactions to Disasters and Needs for Mental Health Assistance

Most studies that examined various interventions along with psychological and psychiatric reactions after disasters tend to focus on adults rather than on children (Gordon & Wraith, 1993; Hofmann & Rogers, 1991; Sugar, 1989). …

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