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,
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 "
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
Description of the Sample
Single Parent, employed
Single Parent, unemployed
Two Parents, both employed
Two Parents, one employed
Two Parents, neither employed currently
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
|Highest Level Education
High school diploma or GED
Any higher degree
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).
Difference in Stress Levels of Children, Adolescents, and Adults
|Child Hurricane Stress
Adolescent Hurricane Stress
|Child Hurricane Stress
Adult Hurricane Stress
|Adolescent Hurricane Stress
Adult Hurricane Stress
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.
Difference in Stress Levels based on Friends/Relatives Directly Affected
|Child Hurricane Stress w/ relative affected
Child Hurricane Stress w/out relative affected
|Adolescent Hurricane Stress w/ relative affected
Adolescent Hurricane Stress w/out relative affected
|Adult Hurricane Stress w/ relative affected
Adult Hurricane Stress w/out relative affected
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
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.
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
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
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.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Managing traumatic stress:
Tips for recovering from natural disasters. Retrieved October 8, 2005
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.
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