OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Images from disasters can traumatize children – or educate them

01/19/2010

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Stark images from Haiti of dead bodies piled high and grief-stricken children crying for lost siblings or parents are disturbing for adults, but to children who see them over and over, such exposure can be traumatic, experts say.

Parents may need to protect younger children from repeated exposure, but even students in middle school may have troubling processing what they see, according to Oregon State University child development psychologist Kathy Becker-Blease.

“Pre-school children don’t always understand that the images they see running constantly on television are being repeated,” Becker-Blease said. “They can think that a disaster is happening over and over. During the coverage of 9-11, for example, some kids thought airplanes were continually crashing into buildings for days – and that can heighten their worry.

“But surprisingly, we found that kids ages 11-13 can have the highest levels of anxiety – even for those who report little actual exposure to those images. These ‘tweens’ tend not to be protected quite as much by their parents, and they may not get enough chances to talk through the situation with adults – or they may not verbalize their feelings as well.”

Becker-Blease said it isn’t always easy to tell when children are suffering from anxiety. They may show their feelings through their play or actions; they may have fears about separation or night-time that seem unrelated. “Some older children may wonder if this will happen here,” she said. “Could there be a huge earthquake in Oregon? And would Oregon look like Haiti? Teens may have more complex questions, like why do these things happen and what can we in the United States do to help?

“Expressing sadness and some anxiety is normal,” she added. “It becomes a problem when those feelings are so intense that they interfere with daily life – like going to school – and do not subside as the coverage of the event fades.”

Becker-Blease, who studies child trauma – including the impact of media images – said that while parents should be cognizant of their children’s feelings, they shouldn’t assume their child is traumatized. As with adults, reactions in children to disaster and trauma can range widely and should be handled on an individual basis.

Parents should find out what their children know about the disaster, provide them with fact-based information, give them an opportunity to talk about it, and only go as far as needed. “People have different coping mechanisms, so assuming your child is traumatized may not be the way to go,” Becker-Blease said. “You may lose credibility. Being there as a potential resource, though, is important.”

Becker-Blease, who teaches psychology at Oregon State, did her post-doctoral work at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. The National Institutes of Health-funded center conducts research into different forms of child trauma and abuse. Her work looked at children as victims of neglect, domestic violence, community violence including war and terror, and peer-related abuse.

She became particularly interested in children’s exposure to media images during the 9-11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centers, with its unprecedented media coverage.

“A lot of people became hooked on the coverage, which was 24-7,” she said, “and some of the distress that adults feel from watching television can spill over into their family life. So even if you think your child is too young to be affected, there may be an indirect impact.”

There has been no shortage of disasters in recent years. From images of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Indian Ocean tsunami, to the latest disaster in Haiti, the exposure of children to traumatic events is higher than ever, given advances in technology. Yet it is unrealistic to expect the news media to not run those images, Becker-Blease said.

“Possibly the best pieces of advice I’ve heard came from Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, who said that when watching such disasters with children, point out the helpers, not just the victims,” Becker-Blease said. “There aren’t many disasters where that wouldn’t apply, and children can relate to heroes and not obsess quite so much with the dead and dying.”

One of the most traumatic disasters for children in recent memory was the Challenger explosion, Becker-Blease pointed out, because schools were set up to watch the launch and Christa McAuliffe was a teacher. But many events came have unforeseen consequences, she added.

“A teen-age boy boarding his school bus was shot by the Washington, D.C., snipers and, suddenly, some middle-school students were afraid to get on a bus,” Becker-Blease said. “After that some kids started going to bed with baseball bats. It had nothing to do with bombing, but they were transferring their fear and didn’t have any context for what they saw.”

There is no one way for parents, teachers and others to work with their children, Becker-Blease says. It’s a matter of knowing your children, monitoring their exposure to images, and using common sense.

“In today’s world, you can’t filter out everything,” Becker-Blease said, “and you may not know what their exposure is unless you talk to them. Some children will need protection in terms of limiting that exposure. Others may want to help through food or clothing drives. The important thing is to be aware that these images can have an impact.”

Becker-Blease said parents can get advice on dealing with traumatic events through a pair of websites: