Responding to the trauma of disaster

The psychological wounds of survival can run deep and must be addressed in young and old
Sarah Feuerbacher

Sarah Feuerbacher
Director of the Center for Family Counseling

On the psychological impact of natural disasters on children who experience them

“Children are in developmental stages ranging from learning safe attachment to their caregivers and environments, to learning to gain confidence in mastering new tasks and relationships. Children who experience trauma have each of those developmental stages disrupted and can become dysregulated in many aspects of their life. For example, children who experienced the flooding may be afraid of water altogether and refuse to take a bath, or may have a panic attack during a light rain shower. They may become obsessed with hoarding food or checking to make sure their family is safe. They may have a heightened awareness and intensified need to discuss issues, like death, not typically associated with a child. They will all have a loss of innocence from the devastation that they experienced as a child.”

On the psychological impact of natural disasters on teens who experience them

“Developmentally, adolescents are in the stage of exploring their independence and discovering who they are as an individual. Many teens who have experienced this trauma may feel a need to gain some control over the helpless feeling they have in the chaos. Some may jump into help assist others through rescue efforts, donation drives, food distribution, etc. However, as admirable as their mobilization for action may be, it is important for these teens to also be supported in processing their own grief and loss experiences.”

On the psychological impact of natural disasters on parents who experience them

“In the hierarchy of needs, during an immediate crisis, parents will be focused on survival, which includes some of the most basic human requirements like food, water, shelter. In these crucial times, people can be incredibly resilient and are able to focus their energy on finding those basic resources to keep themselves and their children alive and safe.

“Once safety has been achieved, life goes on for the rest of the world.  But for the parents of surviving families, they still find themselves in a world of devastation, loss, and continued trauma. This creates anxiety, which leads to stress that compounds already challenging situations that threatens the security of relationships and medical and mental health, thus impacting every facet of the already exhausted parent just trying to survive. Thriving again can seem like a pipe dream when it feels like all is lost.

“I had a student share with me a powerful post from her family member whose house flooded in Houston: ‘You work so long, collect so much, you pamper it, love it, show it off, share it, and in less than one day it’s completely gone. Amazing really, freeing kinda [sic] and violating!’”

On the psychological impact of natural disasters on elderly who experience them

“The previous statement also encompasses the experience of an older adult who built a lifetime of memories in their belongings and in their experiences, all of which are potentially both literally and figuratively swept away. In this developmental stage of finding purpose and meaning in life to give to future generations, older adults may feel that life is over for them when they have nothing of their life as they knew it left and with very little to move into the future. The image of the residents of the nursing home in waist-deep water is one of the most resounding images of this horrific natural disaster, creating a sense in everyone who has viewed it that this population may be more vulnerable for evacuating, rallying, tapping into resources, and enduring in the aftermath.”

On what kind of treatment is needed to overcome the trauma of a natural disaster

“The American Red Cross is offering immediate crisis counseling services at local evacuation shelters, and schools hosting displaced students have counselors ready to provide assistance. However, from escalation in anxiety to physiological and developmental delays to PTSD and depression, continued trauma will be experienced in the weeks, months and years to come of those who survived this devastating disaster. Ongoing counseling should be sought for assistance and healing, which can be provided by licensed mental health professionals, particularly by those trained in Psychological First Aid. One example is the SMU Simmons School Center for Family Counseling, located at the SMU-in-Plano campus, which offers free services to any age, including individual, couples, family, group counseling, and play therapy; for more information on these services, as well as on-site services offered at specific locations for evacuees, please contact the SMU Center for Family Counseling at 972-473-3456.”

Sarah Feuerbacher, Ph.D., is clinic director of the SMU Center for Family Counseling

Can Discuss:

  • child behavior
  • introverted children
  • healthy relationships