Making young minds resilient to disasters

As a pediatrician and a parent, I often think about what I’d do to keep my children safe if we were hit by a storm like Hurricane Dorian, which reduced whole towns in the Bahamas to rubble. Or by a wildfire, like the Camp Fire that burned the town of Paradise, California to the ground. Or how we’d deal with this year’s record-breaking rains that flooded scores of towns throughout the Mississippi River Basin.

Disasters like these — which may be getting more dangerous with climate change — can directly harm a child’s body. But what’s less well appreciated is how they can harm our children’s minds, and how these harms can result in poorer health across our children’s lives. Fortunately, we can take actions to build resilience in our children and in our communities before a disaster strikes, which may help buffer them from the trauma of living through one.

How might children experience a natural disaster?

We can take concrete steps to protect our homes and families from the imminent risks that come with natural disasters. But even if our homes are spared, and we have enough food, water, and backup power to keep our families safe, a child who lives through a major disaster can have lingering health effects that may be difficult to see at first.

So, for a moment, imagine the sense of loss — and instability — a child might feel when they return home after a disaster. Their community isn’t the one they knew just a few days before. Their school, the homes of friends and family, the places they used to play, may all have vanished. None of these losses may be as unsettling as finding their home destroyed, or learning that a loved one has died.

Trauma from hurricanes, wildfires, and floods can have long-term mental health impacts on children. Researchers have found that children who experience these natural disasters can suffer from lingering anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms (also see here and here). As many families learn, post-disaster signs of PTSD in children may include recurring upsetting dreams, separation anxiety, and physical responses such as headaches and stomachaches.

And they also may be at risk for worse health in other ways.

What are adverse childhood events and how do they affect health?

Adverse childhood events (or ACEs) refer to a range of traumatic events, such as:

  • physical abuse or neglect
  • parental mental illness
  • divorce
  • exposure to violence
  • living through a natural disaster.

ACEs can lead to toxic stress, which can result when a child has to endure many adverse events and lacks adequate protective buffers. Recurrent or prolonged triggering of a child’s stress response can alter brain architecture. It also affects development of other organs, with health consequences that stretch into adulthood, including higher rates of substance use, unwanted pregnancies, cancer, and HIV.

How can we help children build protective resilience?

But we can buffer children from ACEs and the toxic stress that drives poorer health outcomes. For instance, one of the most powerful forces in preventing damage from toxic stress is having a supportive adult in a child’s life. Many other actions can bolster resilience by helping them feel confident in their ability to adapt to change. This can include anything from promoting healthy risk-taking and encouraging children to do things that are outside their comfort zone, to modeling perseverance in the face of adversity by adults. Several practical guides for parents on building resilience to ACEs and toxic stress are available from trusted authorities such as the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

With the right tools, parents, teachers, coaches, and religious leaders, among others, can all contribute to building a child’s resilience. So, too, can communities and local governments. Access to high-quality early education, crime prevention, professional development for teachers, parental coaching on responding to children’s emotions, better parks and playgrounds, and possibly even increased exposure to green space may all be investments that create lifelong payoffs by buffering children against toxic stress.

With eye-popping climate change disasters unfolding before our eyes, we must not miss the sometimes harder-to-see effects that can emerge and persist long after the storms and fires are over. We must do what we can to prepare ourselves, and our communities, to make our children stronger and more resilient.

Related Information: Harvard Health Letter

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