Disasters & Trauma

When tragedies strike, the emotional consequences can be overwhelming. Whether the trauma is natural or intentional, small or large, sudden or expected, it can have a very significant impact upon children and families. Even without physical injury, there can be substantial emotional trauma. At first, shock and denial are normal protective reactions. Other emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and/or physical symptoms may eventually surface. Individuals that have experienced traumas may appear irritable, have irregular sleeping patterns, exhibit poor concentration, show signs of excessive worry, or display exaggerated startle responses. Some people become less emotionally expressive and appear to be detached from others. At times, traumatized children display behaviors that resemble other problems, such as Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Depression or Anxiety. It is not uncommon to see regressive behaviors, such as toileting accidents, even in a child who had been fully toilet trained. Sometimes, traumatized children will exhibit symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, such as intense fearfulness, feelings of helplessness, recurrent thoughts of the traumatic event, nightmares, severe and frequent distress, or avoidance of persons, places, or things associated with the event.

Parents and family members may feel very overwhelmed by not knowing how to manage these reactions following a disaster or trauma. Understanding typical responses to these abnormal events is one of the most helpful steps in the path to recovery. A psychologist can be helpful in educating people about normal responses to extreme stress. It is important that a family understand and accept that time and patience for mourning and healing is crucial. Reaching out to others for support, communicating needs, engaging in healthy coping behaviors and resuming normal routines as soon as possible are also necessary. A number of factors that can impact on the length of time required for recovery may include the degree of intensity of the event, the extent of the loss, other stressful events that may have preceded the traumatic experience, level of premorbid functioning, and a person’s general ability to cope with emotionally challenging situations.

Treatment is generally recommended if serious problems persist and continue to interfere with daily life after an extended period of time. With children, ongoing aggressive behaviors and emotional outbursts, serious problems at school, preoccupation with the traumatic event, continued and extreme withdrawal, and other signs of excessive anxiety or emotional difficulties may suggest the need for professional intervention. An evaluation to rule out Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or other issues may be warranted. A qualified mental health professional at Silber Psychological Services can help traumatized children and their parents understand and deal with thoughts, feelings and behaviors that result from trauma. Treatment modalities may include individual therapy and/or family therapy focused on finding the most appropriate strategies to help a family cope effectively and constructively with the emotional impact of a disaster or trauma and ultimately returning to a normal, healthy and satisfying family life.