URC

Child, Adolescent, and Adult Stress Related to Natural Disasters

Meredith Young
Cheryl Cain
Anna Fesmire
Chrissy Williams
Sheri Lokken Worthy*
Mississippi State University


Abstract

The long-term impacts of the recent hurricanes on families in the Southeastern U.S. are still unknown. Research has shown that stress from natural disasters will affect young children, adolescents, and adults differently. The purpose of this study was to determine whether or not different age groups experienced varying levels of stress due to the recent hurricanes. The adolescents in this study (ages 8 to 18) showed the most stress compared to young children and adults.

Natural disasters, in the form of tornados, hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, and tsunamis, bring about unique challenges for families such as relocating, family involvement, psychological reactions, and techniques of coping (Lazarus, Jimerson, & Brock, 2002). With each of these problems a person faces, new stress is introduced into their lives. Gnatuk, Bradford, and Lesueur (2005) stated that there were four main ways that people were affected by a hurricane. These four steps can be generalized to include any natural disaster. The first is families in the direct path of the hurricane and fighting for their basic needs. The second is families displaced and living with extended family or in new places. The third included those families who had relatives, friends, or knew volunteers that were in the most destroyed areas. The fourth referred to those children and families, across the United States, who watched the endless coverage on the television, which caused feelings of worry or concern (Gnatuk, Bradford, & Lesueur, 2005). Each level can affect people differently, emotionally, and psychologically (McCarthy & Butler, 2003).

Individuals will react differently to stress from a natural disaster. Age, gender, and race do not determine whether or not a person will be affected by a natural disaster but may influence how a person reacts to the natural disaster. Miller (1999) stated in some cases that "…the unnatural inhibition of children's normal spontaneous activity is usually an indicator of a great deal of underlying turmoil," but "[i]n other cases, children's distress is more evident [in] showing clinging, crying, and behavioral regression" (pp. 24-25). Although some children can verbalize their problems of stress due to a natural disaster, others cannot due to emotional confusion (Gnatuk, Bradford, & Lesueur, 2005). Natural disasters can affect adults' behavior, ability to function, and overall sense of well being (National Association of School Psychologists, 2002), which in turn could cause the children in their presence to mimic their stress (Miller, 1999). Furthermore, stress in adults can be brought about by guilt and frustration caused by the adults' inability to provide for their children (Gnatuk, Bradford, & Lesueur, 2005). According to the National Association of School Psychologists (2002), "[t]he intensity and ways we express our reactions will vary depending on our personal experience, general mental health, other stress factors in our lives, our coping style, our ability to self-monitor our emotional state, and our support network" ( p. 1). According to Khoury and her colleagues (1997), when the demands of a disaster exceed an individual's capabilities, that individual is classified as high risk. Individuals at high risk will gain the most benefit from psychological and somatic help.

Natural disasters not only affect individuals but also family units (APA, n.d.). As described in Gnatuk's fourth level, stress from natural disasters does not affect only those directly hit. This understanding leads to the idea that stress from natural disasters can cause greater problems within communities. Therefore, families may have larger problems after a natural disaster than once thought. The purpose of this research is to determine whether stress from natural disasters affects family members of various age groups differently.

Children and Stress

Delamater and Applegate (1996) looked at posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the development of pre-kindergarten children enrolled in Head Start (ages three and four). The child PTSD Reaction Index was used to assess the children's possible stress by asking the mothers about their child's behavioral patterns since Hurricane Andrew (Delamater & Applegate, 1996). The interviews were conducted nine months after Hurricane Andrew. According to Delamater and Applegate (1996), 12 months after the hurricane 30.9% of the children in this study were rated as being delayed in their overall development and 18 months after the hurricane 11.6% of all children still experienced symptoms of PTSD.

Adolescents and Stress

In 2002, Russoniello studied the effect of Hurricane Floyd on fourth graders and the coping techniques that had been utilized six months after the flooding. They used the child version of the Post-Traumatic Stress Reaction Index. The study included "63% African Americans, 33% European Americans, and 4% Hispanics" (Russoniello, 2002, p. 3). The majority of the children surveyed (95%) experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, with 71% reporting moderate-to-very severe symptoms. Girls and students who had their homes flooded reported the most symptoms.

McDermott and Palmer (2002) looked at post disaster depression, emotional distress, and psychopathology of fourth through twelfth graders after bushfires in New South Wales, Australia. The researchers surveyed eleven primary schools and two secondary schools. All primary school students had the survey read to them face-to-face, whereas, the secondary students read the survey themselves (McDermott & Palmer, 2002). The researchers concluded that increased levels of depression had an impact on the degree of emotional distress. The middle school age group was found to have more depression symptoms than the younger children or adolescents. Gender did not directly effect depression, but a correlation was found with males showing less depression (McDermott & Palmer, 2002).

Khoury and her colleagues (1997) conducted a study that focused on the relationship between natural disasters and social deviance. They collected data from seventh grade boys and girls that were Caucasian, African American, and Hispanic. The researchers collected two sets of data before Hurricane Andrew and a third sample after Hurricane Andrew hit (Khoury, et al., 1997).

The Khoury study concluded that there was a relationship between the numbers of hurricane problems experienced and post hurricane stress levels for boys and girls in all three racial/ethnic groups. Indirect relationships were found between hurricane problems and post hurricane deviance. For boys and girls, these relationships were associated with stress symptom levels (Khoury, et al., 1997).

Adults and Stress

Frasier and her colleagues (2004) investigated abuse and stress due to Hurricane Floyd. After determining the presence of stress, they focused on three types of stress. The research focused on women aged eighteen years or older, and included Caucasians and African Americans. Victims of domestic violence reported higher psychological distress, higher perceived stress, more somatic complaints, and more symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder than non-victims. There was no difference in these reports before or after the flood, however (Frasier et al., 2004)

The purpose of a study by Cohan and Cole (2002) was to investigate the relationship between natural disasters (Hurricane Hugo) and three family processes: getting married, having children, and getting divorced. The researchers viewed these three processes through stress research, attachment theory, and economic circumstances. Data were collected in 31 counties affected by Hurricane Hugo. Time-series analysis revealed that marriage, birth, and divorce rates one year after the hurricane increased in the 24 disaster counties compared to the other 22 counties in the state (Cohan & Cole, 2002).

McCarthy and Butler (2003) studied the affects of an F4 tornado on college students in Clarksville, Tennessee using the Trauma Symptom Inventory (TSI), a 100-item survey that measures the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and acute stress disorder. The researchers stated that people might show different levels and signs of stress and anxiety depending on the type of threat to one's life. Students felt more anxious, angry, and irritable right after the initial event had occurred than after the natural disaster had past. This study did not show a decline in anxiety level until nine months after the tornado had affected them. The age span of the students was from 20 to 51 years of age (McCarthy & Butler, 2003). Data were collected at three different assessment times. Many of the student participants graduated and did not finish the third assessment. The initial study group consisted of 56 participants; only 18 participated in the third data collection. Of the 18 remaining participants, 16 were women, 17 were Caucasian, and one was Hispanic (McCarthy & Butler, 2003). Future natural disaster stress research needs to include male and female children and adolescents, adult males, and more diverse ethnic groups (Frasier et al., 2004).

Purpose

Research on natural disasters and stress is timely and relevant due to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. Thousands were displaced by the recent hurricanes and many were left with nothing. This research will focus on natural disaster stress of different age groups. If research can determine which age group has the highest stress levels, then professionals can better target them for help.

Methodology

Participants

The participants for this study were the parents of the children enrolled at two different child care centers in a university community. Two surveys were placed in each child's box at the centers, 110 at one and 72 at the other. The first center serves children six weeks old to school age. The second child care center serves three and four year olds.

Instrument

A voluntary 51-question survey was presented to the parents. The questions related to their oldest child at the child care center, an adolescent child (if they had one), and themselves. The parents were informed that their participation was voluntary, that they could refuse to answer any questions, that they could withdraw from the research at any time, and were guaranteed confidentiality.

Procedure

Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval for the study was obtained October 31, 2005 and the surveys were completed during the first week of November 2005. Parents were asked to complete the survey, place it back in a manila envelope, seal it, and give it back to the center director. The IRB waived signature of informed consent for this survey to ensure anonymity. Signs were posted at each center to remind parents of the deadline.

Three variables were computed for this study: child hurricane stress, adolescent hurricane stress, and adult hurricane stress. Child hurricane stress was comprised of ranking questions about the parent's oldest child in the child care center, such as a) "how often has your child complained of a stomach ache in the past 8 weeks," b) "in the past 8 weeks, has your child's overall happiness: increased…decreased," c) "how frequently does your child talk about Hurricane Katrina?," d) "how much stress do you think your child experienced because of the recent hurricanes?," e) "has your child had problems sleeping at night since the hurricanes?," and f) has your child expressed concern or frustration toward the weather since the recent hurricane?."

Adolescent hurricane stress was made up of similar questions in relation to their youngest adolescent child (age 8-18). "Has your adolescent shown any abnormal moodiness or withdrawal since the hurricane?" was asked in lieu of the question about stomachaches.

Adult hurricane stress was made up of four questions: a) "how many times per week do you talk about the Gulf coast region to your family or friends?," b) how much stress do you think you have experienced because of the recent hurricanes?," c) "in the past 8 weeks, has your overall happiness: increased…..decreased," d) "have you found yourself getting overly upset about bad weather since the recent hurricanes?."

In order to calculate the percentage of child stress, the total possible stress points from each child-related question was added to get a total possible stress number for children. This total number was 28. Each child's actual stress number was divided by the child's total possible stress number to get the child's stress percentage. The same procedure was used to calculate adolescent stress percentage and adult stress percentage. The adult score had a lower number of possible stress points, 19.

Results and Discussion

The purpose of this study was to determine the level of stress after a natural disaster within the age groups of children, adolescents, and adults. For this research, age groups were defined as a) children, younger than six, b) adolescents, 8 to 18 years old, and c) adults, a parent of a child at either child care center which participated in the survey.

A total of 59 parents completed the survey by the deadline. Table 1 describes the sample in more detail. The majority of the parents that completed this survey was married and had college degrees. Parents from a variety of backgrounds, income circumstances, and educational levels were asked to participate in this survey. Staff, students, and faculty affiliated with the university are eligible to enroll their children at these two child care centers.

Table 1
Description of the Sample

 
n
%
Family Type
Single Parent, employed
Single Parent, unemployed
Two Parents, both employed
Two Parents, one employed
Two Parents, neither employed currently

 
4
1
35
16
3

6.8
1.7
59.3
27.1
5.1
Annual Income
Less than $10,000
$10,000 - $19999
$20,000 - 29,999
$30,000 - $39,999
$40,000 - $49,999
$50,000 - $74,999
$75,000 - $99,999
$100,000 or higher
No answer
 

3
9
3
7
10
13
9
4
1
 

5.1
15.3
5.1
11.9
16.9
22.0
15.3
6.7
1.7
Highest Level Education
High school diploma or GED
Some college
College diploma
Any higher degree
 

2
13
21
23
 

3.4
22.0
35.6
39.0
 
Ethnicity
White/Caucasian
Black/African American
Asian American
Hispanic/Latino
Other
No answer
 

37
6
9
1
4
2
 

62.7
10.1
15.3
1.7
6.8
3.4
 
Gender
Male
Female
No answer
 

21
37
1
 

35.6
62.7
1.7
 

Hypothesis 1: Children will experience less stress due to natural disaster than adolescents or adults. The data gathered in this study shows that children do experience less stress than adolescents and adults. The mean difference between adolescent hurricane stress and child hurricane stress was not significant. The mean difference between adult hurricane stress and child hurricane stress was significant, with adults experiencing more stress than the children in our study (see Table 2 for details).

Table 2
Difference in Stress Levels of Children, Adolescents, and Adults

  M n SD p-value
Child Hurricane Stress
Adolescent Hurricane Stress
.33
.75
 
14
14
 
.07
.20
 
 
.934
 
Child Hurricane Stress
Adult Hurricane Stress
 
.33
.44
 
55
55
 
.09
.16
 

.000
 
Adolescent Hurricane Stress
Adult Hurricane Stress
 
.75
.44
 
14
14
 
.20
.14
 

.036
 

Children probably experienced less stress due to age, understanding, and exposure. The age range of the children in this study was infants to five year olds. At this age, the child probably has little to no understanding of the events that have recently occurred. Children of this age will most likely only have exposure if their parent/guardian or a teacher addresses the event. Adults probably have more stress related to the recent hurricanes because they understood the event and situations that would arise from that event. Hypothesis one was accepted.

Hypothesis 2: Adolescents will experience more stress due to natural disasters than adults. Table 1 shows that adolescents experience more stress than adults. Adolescent stress may be higher because of their developmental level (cognitive and emotional), and their peer and media exposure. Eight to 18 is a large age span. However, 11 of the 14 adolescents in this sample were age 11 or younger. Adolescents of this age may still have little understanding about this type of catastrophic event. This lack of understanding may cause unsettling feelings and worry that is transformed into stress. Media exposure is also a large factor among this age group. If an adolescent is exposed to multiple media outlets that are filled with news and sensationalized stories of the event, this may also produce stress for the adolescent. This may cause doubts about the adolescent's safety. The stress that adolescents observe from parents, peers, and authority figures may in turn cause them more stress. Hypothesis 2 was accepted.

Hypothesis 3: Those with relatives or friends affected by the recent hurricanes will experience more stress. There were no significant differences in stress levels among children who did or did not have friends or relatives affected by the recent hurricanes. Yet, adolescents were found to have more stress if they had a relative or friend who was affected, but the t-test was not significant. Adults with relatives or friends affected by the recent hurricanes had higher stress levels as well, but the t-test was not significant. See Table 3. Thus, hypothesis 3 was not accepted.

Table 3
Difference in Stress Levels based on Friends/Relatives Directly Affected

  M n SD p-value
Child Hurricane Stress w/ relative affected
Child Hurricane Stress w/out relative affected

.33
.32
 
29
27
 
.08
.09
 

.835
 
Adolescent Hurricane Stress w/ relative affected
Adolescent Hurricane Stress w/out relative affected
 
.81
.68
 
7
7
 
.25
.14
 

.272
 
Adult Hurricane Stress w/ relative affected
Adult Hurricane Stress w/out relative affected
 
.48
.40
 
30
28
 
.18
.12
 

.069
 

Young children in this sample probably showed no difference in stress because of their developmental level and lack of understanding or awareness of the event. The children in this sample were so young they probably had little to no exposure to the media coverage. It is also unknown how much knowledge of family, friends, and extended family these children have. How well the young children actually know and communicate with these people who might live far away is important to understand. If the children have no concept of these people, the situations those people face will not be a factor for the young child.

Unlike child stress, adolescent stress was higher for those adolescents with friends or relatives affected by the recent hurricanes, although it was not significant. This stress level may be higher for that group because the worry about relatives and the added stress of seeing their parents worry. Also, hearing about someone you know who is having a hard time may cause an adolescent to worry about his or her own safety and well-being.

Adults also demonstrate higher levels of stress when relatives or friends were affected by the recent hurricanes, but it was not significant. Adults understand the events at hand and the long-term consequences, problems, and challenges that lie ahead for their friends and relatives.

Limitations

Some problems must be taken into consideration when interpreting this research. The sample size was rather small (n = 59). There was an especially small number of adolescents in our study (n = 14) because parents of children five and younger were surveyed. Another problem is that parents were filling out the survey and answering questions about the stress levels of their young child or adolescent. It is possible their perception was wrong.

The researchers also discovered a problem with the wording of one of the survey questions. The question was asked, "Do you have any relatives or friends who have been affected by Hurricane Katrina or Rita?" This question could have been read and interpreted in a variety of ways. If further research is done, the question needs to be clarified.

Conclusion

This research is relevant and timely because of the devastation the recent hurricanes have caused. The main findings of this study are that adolescents had more stress after the recent hurricanes than young children or adults. Parents need to pay close attention to their adolescent children after a traumatic event. Counseling and educational programs for adolescents can help them to deal with their emotions during these difficult times.

According to Cohan and Cole (2002), proper treatment of stress in individuals displaying symptoms is important so they do not develop long-term mental health problems. Professionals in these situations may have traditionally given everyone the same therapy, but different ages have different levels of stress, therefore they each have different ways of dealing with natural disasters. Frasier and her colleagues (2004) suggested that after hurricanes there need to be more crisis centers available and more counseling available. "Often, during and following a disaster, community leaders and teachers notice how eerily quiet the children are and may be thankful, given the adults' own level of distress, that these children seem to be taking it so well" (Miller, 1999, p. 24). According to Gnatuk (2005), the professionals' first priority in dealing with children after a natural disaster is to meet their basic needs. This concept of meeting basic needs can be exhibited in all other age groups and must be tackled before stress is addressed. Once the basic needs have been met, then the individual's reaction to stress can be addressed. The present research has attempted to better understand individual reactions to natural disaster stress. Once the reaction to natural disaster stress is understood, then professionals can better equip and better rehabilitate families after future natural disasters.


References

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Managing traumatic stress: Tips for recovering from natural disasters. Retrieved October 8, 2005 from http://www.apahelpcenter.org/articles/article/php?id=69

Cohan, S. W., & Cole, C. L. (2002). Life course transitions and natural disaster: Marriage, birth, and divorce following Hurricane Hugo. Journal of Family Psychology, 16(1), 14-25.

Delamater, A. M., & Applegate, E. B. (1996). Child development and post-traumatic stress disorder after hurricane exposure. Traumatology: The International Journal. Retrieved September 13, 2005 from http://www.fsu.edu/~trauma/a3v5i3.html

Frasier, P. Y., Belton, L., Hooten, E., Campbell, M. K., DeVellis, B., Benedict, S., Carrillo, C., 

Gonzalez, P., Kelsey, K., & Meier, A. (2004). Disaster down east: Using participating research to explore intimate partner violence in eastern North Carolina. Health Education and Behavior. 31(4), 69S-84S.

Gnatuk, C. A., Bradford, K., & Lesueur, A. (2005). Helping children cope with the impact of Hurricane Katrina. Cooperative Extension Service, University of Kentucky, College of Agriculture fact sheet retrieved October 8, 2005 from http://www.ca.uky.edu/fcs/FACTSHTS/FAM-CAG.101.pdf

Khoury, E. L., Warheit, G. J., Hargrove, M. C., Zimmerman R. S., Vega W. A., & Gil A. G. (1997). The impact of Hurricane Andrew on deviant behavior among a multi-racial/ethnic sample of adolescents in Dade County, Florida: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Traumatic Stress. 10(1), 71-91.

Lazarus, P. J., Jimerson, S. R., & Brock, S. E. (2002). Natural disasters. In Best practices in school crisis prevention and intervention (pp. 433-445). Bethesda, MD: NASP Publications.

McCarthy, M. & Butler, L. (2003). Responding to traumatic events on college campuses: A case study and assessment of student post disaster anxiety. Journal of College Counseling, 6, 90-96.

McDermott, B. M. & Palmer, L. J. (2002). Postdisaster emotional distress, depression and event-related variables: Findings across child and adolescent developmental stages. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 36, 754-761.

Miller, L. (1999). Treating posttraumatic stress disorder in children and families: Basic principles and clinical applications. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 27(1), 21-34.

National Association of School Psychologists. (2002). Managing strong emotional reactions to traumatic events: Tips for parents and teachers. Retrieved October 8, 2005 from http://www.nasponline.org/NEAT/angermgmt_gerneral.html

Russoniello, C. V. (2002, summer). Childhood posttraumatic stress disorder and efforts to cope after Hurricane Floyd. Behavioral Medicine. Retrieved September 13, 2005 from http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0GDQ/is_2_28/ai_97909333

 


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