Helping Kids Cope with Katrina
During the round-the-clock TV coverage of the Hurricane
Katrina disaster, many children have been viewing the horrific
scenes coming from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. What are the
psychological effects of this exposure on children who are far
from the actual disaster?
John Fairbank, Ph.D., associate professor of medical
psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center and co-director of
the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, said research
findings from earlier catastrophes can provide some clues about
the effects of kids' increased TV viewing during Katrina and
"We know from studies that have been done in the aftermath
of other major traumatic events in our nation, such as the
Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the
World Trade Center, that children who spent a lot of time
viewing television depictions of these events reported and
experienced greater amounts of distress than children who
viewed lesser amounts," said Fairbank.
"We know that the types of symptoms children experience vary
by their age and level of development. The reactions of young
children and adolescents, for example, will be quite different.
In younger children, you see some of the characteristic
symptoms of traumatic stress reaction, such as sleep
disturbance, nightmares, clinginess and not wanting to be apart
from their loved ones.
"Continuous exposure to the horrific scenes of destruction,
death and loss of the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast
can have an effect on children and families throughout the
United States," Fairbanks continued. "One of the things that we
recommend to parents is that they monitor the amount of
exposure that children have to graphic images on TV of what's
happened in these areas."
Fairbank said that repeated viewing of disaster coverage may
lead very young children to believe that the event itself is
happening again and again.
"Children will also monitor their parents' reactions to the
events. If we are spending lots of time watching the news, or
if we just have the TV on all the time in the background, and
it's affecting our own mood and our level of anxiety, even in
subtle ways, our children pick up on that and it affects their
personal level of anxiety."
Fairbank said parents should limit children's viewing of
disaster coverage. He recommends turning off the TV and trying
to re-establish a normal routine as soon as possible. It is
also important to talk with kids about their fears and concerns
and, above all, to provide reassurance about their safety, he
"Younger children particularly will be concerned about the
safety of their own family, their friends and their school.
They'll be worried about, 'Can this happen here?' A wonderful
thing that parents can do is to explain to their children that
they are doing everything they can to protect them."
It's also a good idea, according to Fairbank, to involve
children in special projects to help disaster victims.
"Being part of relief efforts and fundraising initiatives at
their school or church is a very positive thing for children to
do," he said.
The National Center for Child Traumatic Stress (NCCTS) is
co-located at Duke University Medical Center and UCLA and is
funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Administration (SAMHSA). The center coordinates the activities
of 54 centers in 32 states that make up the National
Child Traumatic Stress Network.