Aftershocks, reruns of tsunami footage and images of obliterated communities on television have continued to illustrate the scale of the earthquake that struck the Tohoku region on March 11. But some pundits say children, even those who are only following developments on TV, are highly vulnerable to postdisaster stress and can show symptoms that merit proper care.
Here are some questions and answers regarding how children — even those living far from the site of the tragedy — can be affected by the media and their environment:
How do children react to news about a disaster?
Keiichi Funahashi, a pediatrician at the National Center for Child Health and Development, said children have difficulty in differentiating between what they see on television and what can actually influence their environment.
“For adults, news footage is in some ways just a story. They can relate objectively to what they see, whereas children don’t have that capability. It’s almost like they have one less filter than adults,” Funahashi said.
This is true not only for broadcasts of natural disasters and accidents, including the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 or the Sept. 11 attacks, but can also be applied to news reports about crimes.
“It triggers an alarm, and the news becomes more than just news — they get scared of the situation and fear that they may be in danger,” Funahashi said. It is easy to imagine how the never-ending coverage of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami can take a toll on a child’s mindset and possibly cause distress, he added.
What sort of symptoms do children display?
According to a guideline created by the Japanese Society for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, children experiencing stressful events and emotional difficulties may start to demand more attention, act selfishly or become rebellious. Other signs could include impaired sleep and frequent trips to the toilet.
Those who are seriously distressed can even lose appetite, become nauseated or suffer stomachaches and diarrhea.
Fukushima Prefecture’s welfare department, which updated its website following the catastrophic damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami, states that parents should also be on the lookout for a child acting absentmindedly, becoming safety-obsessive or making delusional comments.
What age group is most vulnerable to such stress?
Experts say those who have difficulty following a story objectively are in the age group most easily effected by this disorder. That can include anyone from a 3-year-old to a student in junior high school.
“If a child continues to show serious symptoms with no signs of recovery even weeks after the (Tohoku) situation settles, then one should seek professional help,” Fukushima Prefecture’s welfare department recommends on its website.
How should adults treat children showing signs of stress?
The Japanese Society for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry states that spending time with children and listening closely to what they have to say is crucial in helping a child under stress. Hugging and calming the child is also effective. Sleeping and eating on schedule and keeping a daily routine also help, according to the group.
Such efforts should continue between at least a couple of months and half a year, and even beyond if necessary.
Meanwhile, Fukushima Prefecture’s welfare department says it is also effective to make children feel they are valuable and helpful. “If there is anything children wants to help with, one should try to make them feel they are indeed being helpful. Remember to thank them once they are done with their chores,” the department recommends.
Should news programs that repeatedly show frightening images be avoided?
In a section that explains how adults should discuss disasters with children, the American Psychiatric Association says giving children “honest answers and information” is important. “Children will usually know, or eventually find out, if you’re making things up,” the association says.
Using words and concepts that children can understand is key when discussing such issues, the association says, adding that one should be cautious because “children tend to personalize situations,” including fears about their own safety.
Regarding news of disasters on television, the association says children shouldn’t watch too many frightening images because it can be too disturbing and confusing.
Pediatrician Funahashi agrees.
“It’s inevitable that frightening images will continue to appear in news coverage. It isn’t recommended that young children be exposed to that,” he said.
The important thing is paying attention to how a child is reacting to news of the disaster, Funahashi explained, adding that a parent should communicate and calmly exchange opinions with the child if necessary.
How should adults act in front of children?
Acting calmly seems to be the key. “Children learn from watching their parents and teachers,” the American Psychiatric Association says. “They will be very interested in how you respond to events. They also learn from listening to your conversations with other adults.”