Hurricane Harvey Will Cause Long-Term Psychological Damage To Kids

Expert Carolyn Kousky weighs-in on how Hurricane Harvey and other natural disasters affect children.

Hurricane Harvey, the tropical cyclone that wreaked havoc on southern Texas, has displaced more than 30,000 people and, according to some estimates, caused $100 billion of damage. But among the tens of thousands suffering in Houston and its surrounding areas, far too many children are watching their world collapse.

School has been cancelled indefinitely in more than 100 districts. Forty percent of the displaced people now living in shelters amongst the carnage are under the age of 18. Babies and toddlers are sleeping in cardboard boxes or on army cots, because shelters have run out of child-safe cribs. And that’s just in the short-term. Long after rescue workers leave, the children who survived the storm will have to come to terms with their losses. Compared to adults, children may have “more difficulty processing emotional trauma,” Carolyn Kousky, director of policy research and engagement at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Risk Center told Fatherly.

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Kousky has studied the long-term effects of natural disasters on kids, and suspects that there will be a difficult road ahead for many of the child victims of Hurricane Harvey. “Younger children tend to have more post-disaster symptoms,” she says. “Unfortunately, many states have not done all they can to help protect children.” Fatherly spoke with Kousky about how children process natural disasters, and what parents can do about it.

What happens to a child psychologically when a natural disaster strikes? Is there a clinical consensus on downstream effects?

This varies a lot by the particular child, the nature of the disaster, and the specifics of what they experience. The disaster itself can be frightening for children and the stress that follows it can also be harmful. This is especially true if the child’s home or possessions were damaged or if they are out of school or their home for a period of time. Parental stress also impacts children. When parents are out of work or dealing with challenging issues of recovery, the child feels this. Many research studies have found that when parents have high levels of post-disaster psychological symptoms, their children do too. Studies after Hurricane Katrina found higher rates of mental health impacts, such as PTSD symptoms or behavior such as aggression in those that suffered through the hurricane. Luckily, for most children, the impacts get better over time.

What long-term challenges do children face in the wake of a major storm? Clearly is practical fallout that leads, in turn, to emotional fallout.

Schools, daycare centers, and health facilities may be closed by a severe event such as Hurricane Harvey.  Being out of school and unable to access medical care, for chronic or acute issues, are two pathways by which disasters can hurt children. For instance, after Katrina, it was found that many families had trouble getting necessary medication, like asthma medicines. When schools cannot reopen, it can also have myriad negative impacts on children and their families. It may leave children without a safe place to go during the day. The disruption and stress of being out of routine also takes a toll on children.

Interestingly, after Katrina, some students were relocated into higher performing schools and this helped them more than make up for the challenges of having school disrupted.

How do children respond differently to disasters than adults?

There are many reasons children may be more vulnerable than adults after a disaster. They rely on caregivers. If they are very young, they may not be able to understand the circumstance or communicate their needs. Some children require special supplies, such as formula for infants. And their physiology makes them more vulnerable. For example, they are more susceptible to dehydration. Illness, malnourishment, or disease at certain points in a child’s development can also have long term consequences, making it essential to prioritize protecting them in the aftermath of a disaster. They may also have more difficulty processing emotional trauma. Studies have found that younger children tend to have more post-disaster symptoms and that children that are prone to anxiety are also more likely to experience negative mental health impacts from a disaster.

Should we use Hurricane Harvey as an opportunity to talk about climate change? Does that context help kids or is it emotionally irrelevant?

For children who have just been through this storm, the focus needs to be on processing the event and on recovery. For children far removed from Texas and the devastation, however, the storm could be opportunity to open up many types of conversations with your child, depending on their age and interests and your family’s circumstance. Certainly, climate change would be one. Another could be talking about how your family can help those who have suffered in events like these. Perhaps it is through volunteering or acts of kindness for those in need.

What can we do, as a society, to prepare children for these events, which may start to happen with more frequency?

Save The Children tracks how states are doing in adopting measures that would help protect children in the event of a disaster. Unfortunately, many states have not done all they can to help protect children, and we spend very little as a country on the unique needs of children after a disaster. For example, states need clear and effective protocols for reuniting families. Limiting time away from families is most effective at protecting children against neglect and abuse. We need to make sure that we build safe schools and daycare facilities that can withstand disaster events to protect children. Children have special needs in shelters. They need appropriate food, medicine, and safe space, for example. Toys, books, and comfort items can help their emotional well-being.

In addition, children should also be educated about disaster risks. Robert Muir-Wood shares a telling story in his book, The Cure for Catastrophe, about a British girl who had learned about tsunamis in school not long before her family took a vacation to Thailand in 2004. She saw the warning signs of a tsunami, spoke up, and was able to save the lives of everyone on the beach with her. We not only need to teach kids but empower them to take positive action.

Do emergency plans or emergency kits help? Are there other really concrete steps parents and caretakers can take in order to mitigate negative effects?

Preparedness is important for disasters. Separation from parents or caregivers can exacerbate problems and so having plans on how to reunite the family in the aftermath of a disaster are important. This includes making sure that the school or daycare has an emergency response plan and that parents know this plan and know how to find their child in the event of a disaster. Studies have shown that children that are separated from their parents are more likely to have trouble processing the event and may take longer to recover.

It has been very hard for researchers to identify specific factors that make some children more resilient than others. We do know that available and supportive parents, caregivers, and family members can help children buffer the negative impacts of disaster events. Reuniting families is critical, as is resuming some semblance of “normal life” as much as possible during recovery. We do need more research on what particular interventions might help children cope better or recover faster.

A storm hit. Parents grab the kids and what they can and go. But what should they prioritize taking?

Obviously, it depends on the timing. Life safety is most important. If families are evacuating in advance of a storm that is predicted to be devastating, they should plan to be away from home for quite some time. In this situation, yes, parents should be sure to bring comfort items for their children with them. They should also be sure to pack any medications or special care items, including things like diapers and bottles for young children.

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