Trauma in Child Survivors of Disasters


According to the American PsychologicalAssociation (2016), three in every five people will encounter atraumatic event at least once in their lifetime. Trauma is theemotional response to terrible events such as accidents, death orrape. Life is made up of numerous events, where some are a joy toremember while the thought of others could make one’s body shiver. The human mind has different ways of responding to terrible events.Victims cannot stop thinking about the disastrous experiences, evenif they tried. Flashbacks are also common. For instance, a personinvolved in a car accident will have flashbacks every time he sees acar or hears one zooming by. Flashbacks can also happen when peoplesee the pictures of their loved ones who lost their lives in aterrible event. Some individuals may cry it out while others will gointo a phase of temporary depression.

The risk of having trauma varies acrossdifferent groups. Trauma is more prevalent in children than in adults(Usami et al, 2014). Research has also shown that women are moresusceptible to trauma than men. But then again, women are betterplaced at recovering from trauma than men. The manner in which one isable to handle the emotional effects of a terrible event willdetermine the effects of the trauma. People who manage their traumaquickly are able to rejoin the society fast enough. On the otherhand, individuals who suffer the brunt of the trauma will appearwithdrawn for longer than usual. The latter group of survivors willrequire professional help in order to get over their trauma. Thisresearch paper analyzes the nature and cause of trauma, and thefactors necessary for successful coping.

Nature of Trauma

According to Swenson (2012), traumaticexperiences in children are stored in the implicit memory hence thedifficulty in forgetting them. The two types of memory are explicitand implicit. Information in the Explicit memory is connected towords and understanding. Information in this type of memory is storedconsciously. In addition, children tend to forget information in theexplicit memory quite easily. Information in the implicit memory isstored subconsciously. It has no connection to the words orunderstanding. For instance, if a child experiences a disaster, theimages are automatically stored in the implicit memory. The quicknesswith which a child will lose such images from their implicit memorywill depend on how they manage their trauma (Kaimener, 2005). Unlikethe explicit memory, information in the implicit memory is notexpressed through words or actions. The primary route of expressingimplicit information is through emotions, bodily sensation andconditioned beliefs or actions. The expression of the implicit memoryafter a terrible event is responsible for trauma in many childvictims.

Around the 1960’s psychologists placed allforms of trauma under the category of psychological (Kaimener, 2005).Quite often, the only people that were diagnosed with psychologicaltrauma were the soldiers who have experienced the brutality of war.Psychologists believed that war was the only traumatic experience.People were considered tough enough to recover from other terribleevents, which are now considered traumatic, such as death, rape andaccidents. It was not until late 1960’s when female genderactivists fought for the inclusion of other terrible events in thelist of traumatic events that can cause psychological trauma. Theyinclude rape, partner abuse, child abuse, and birth. Later on, thepsychological association recognized the proposed traumatic eventsand agreed to enroll such victims in counseling sessions.

Over the past decade, more studies to the brainhave revealed that there can be two types of trauma in children-psychological and emotional (Kaimener, 2005). Psychological trauma isa result of events that have long been recognized as traumatic. Theyinclude death, accident, a long stance of illness, and physicalassault (Becker-Blease et al, 2010). Other terrible events that canpsychological trauma include experiencing horrifying carnages orfatalities, injury in sports, and surgery.

All these events have been in the list ofpsychologists as potential causes of psychological trauma. It is forthis reason that institutions in which children are bound toencounter some of these traumatic events always recommendpsychological intervention at regular intervals. Emotional trauma isdue to events that happened unexpectedly and the child has no controlover them. They include stressful events such as bullying in school.According to Becker-Blease et al (2010), the events leave the childemotionally overwhelmed and the response is different from one personto another.

The symptoms of trauma vary from one child toanother (Fu et al, 2008). The most prevalent symptom is appearing tobe shaken or disoriented. The child will not converse as they usedto. They appear withdrawn from the society and prefer to be alone.Anxiety is another common symptom in people suffering from trauma.The manifestation of anxiety can take the form of edginess, moodswings and high levels of irritability. The symptoms of trauma can bephysical, emotional, or both. The most common emotional symptoms oftrauma are anger, denial and emotional outbursts. Child victims tendto take out their emotional manifestations on family members or otherpeople who might be close to them.

At the same time, there are physicalmanifestations of trauma. Paleness, lethargy and nervousness are someof the common physical manifestations of trauma. A racing heartbeatand poor concentration in school are other physical symptoms oftrauma. The physical symptoms could be as dire as those accrued fromphysical accidents. It is therefore important to seek professionalhelp whenever any type of symptoms manifest.

Causes of Trauma

The primary cause of trauma is experiencingtraumatic events. Psychologists have a compiled a long list oftraumatic events that have caused trauma in people. This section willlook at some of the most common traumatic events.

Accidents have been in existence since theinvention of machines (Kaimener, 2005). Accidents have a traumaticeffect on those children involved and those who witness it from thesidelines. The children keep reflecting the occurrences of thatparticular event. Self-blame is common in those who witnessed theaccident. They keep thinking that they could have done something tosave the victims from their death. Such children will appear to bewithdrawn because the guilt will consume them. In extreme situations,the self-blame could drive the traumatized witness to commit suicide.

According to Kaimener (2005), experiencingharm on another living creature is a traumatic event as well.Children who experience their parents’ abuse are often prone tothis kind of trauma. The numerous acts of terrorism are also a risingtraumatic event for children. For instance, the children whowitnessed the massacre during the recent Paris attacks are prone totrauma. According to Hansel et al (2015), acts of cruelty to animalsmay also trigger trauma in children. The other causes of traumainclude head injuries, surgery, and death. Other includes lumbarpuncture, vaccination and overuse of antibiotics, misaligned dentalfillings, and the effects of meningitis.

Causes of Trauma in Child Survivors ofDisasters

According to Becker-Blease et al (2010),disasters are events that disrupt the basic needs of the child.Disasters expose the child to stressful conditions with the risk ofbereavement staying eminent throughout. In the USA, 11- 30% of adultsreported to have experienced a disaster in their lifetime. Theprevalence varies depending on the context that constitutes adisaster. Some of the people interviewed considered disasters to onlyinclude natural events. This group of correspondents did not considerevents due to human errors, such as fire, as disasters. Thedefinition of a disaster notwithstanding, such events has become morecommon in the recent past. Children who experience such events arebound to suffer from trauma (Jia et al, 2013). If no professionalinterventions take place, the trauma may proceed to adulthood.Religious organization and relief service providers should includepsychological help in their rescue missions.

The cause of trauma in child survivors ofdisaster is witnessing the disaster. Some of the most commondisasters include acts of God such as flooding, earthquakes, tsunami,drought, and hurricanes. Human activities that have led disastersinclude civil war, terrorism, and mining (Drury &amp Williams,2012). The children experience massive deaths, including those ofloved ones, during these disasters. The stay in relief camps as theywait for humanitarian aid is also traumatizing. The congestion,suffering and diseases in these camps increase the pressure on thechildren.

Nature of

In a research conducted by Hansel et al(2015), it emerged that the most common symptoms of trauma in childsurvivors of disasters were anxiety and depressive reactions. In asample size of 62, 43.8% of the subjects reported the aforementionedsymptoms (Hansel et al, 2015). The anxiety levels were notably higherin children who were exposed to the same location that the disasterhappened.

The study revealed that children survivors ofdisasters were more likely to fall into depression than theirparents. Emotional outbursts are also common in this category oftrauma. The degree of symptoms varies depending on the emotionalresilience of the child (Fu et al, 2008). The level of resilience issubject to debate across socio- cultural divides. According to Hanselet al (2015), the degree of the disaster also determines the severityof the symptoms. For instance, the tsunami in Japan was a greaterdisaster than domestic fires that raze down homes in the USA. Thesymptoms of a child who witnessed her family home burn down to asheswill have less severe symptoms than that child who witnessed hisentire neighborhood swept away in the Japanese tsunami.

Posttraumatic stress disorder may occur in somechild survivors of a disaster (Wang et al, 2013). PTSD is anemotional condition that usually happens some months after the childhas gone through a disaster. The rate of PTSD development depends ona number of factors. Among them is the intensity of the disaster, thechild’s personality, and support from family and mental healthissues. Research has shown that susceptibility to PTSD is determinedby hormones of the victim.

Some of the children suffering from PTSD werefound to have lower than normal levels of Cortisol, a hormone that isresponsible for flight response. Another study revealed that childrensuffering from PTSD had a higher than normal level of epinephrine,which is also a flight response hormone. Children with normal levelsof the aforementioned flight response hormones have also reportedcases of PTSD therefore implying that the hormonal imbalance is notthe only cause of PTSD.

Kaminer et al (2005), outline the diagnosticand assessment tool for children suffering from PTSD. The key symptomthat a psychologist should look out for in children who have beenthrough trauma is persistent re-experiencing of the event. The childwill reveal that flashbacks of the disaster keep going through hermind even though the event occurred months ago. Nightmares are alsocommon. The second symptom to look out for is avoidance of traumaticreminders. A child, who still avoids going to the ocean years after atsunami swept away his home, could be suffering from PTSD.

Coping with Trauma in Child Survivors ofDisaster

According to Usami et al (2014), time is thenumber one factor for coping with trauma. After sometime, traumanaturally fades away from the minds of child survivors of disaster.In a study conducted on Japanese children after the 2011 earthquakeand tsunami, results showed that PTSD symptoms decreased in relationwith time. The study involved determining the level of PTSD symptomseight months after the disaster and comparing them with findings froma study done three years later on the same children. Sometimes givingthe children time to cope on their own is the best medicine fortrauma (Newman et al, 2013).

The manner in which the parents manage theirtrauma will affect the child’s ability to cope after a disaster(Pfefferbaum et al, 2014). A study conducted on terrorism survivorsrevealed a positive correlation between parents and childrenregarding PTSD. In many cases, families in which parents developedPTSD also saw the children develop the same disorder. Parents who arenot able to manage their trauma often have no time to help theirchildren in coping with the emotional turmoil caused by the disaster.On the other hand, parents who did not develop PTSD were able tosupport their children to cope with the trauma of terrorism andconsequently, their children healed quickly.

When children move away from factors thatremind them of the disaster, they are likely to cope with traumarather quickly (Becker, 2007). A constant reminder of the disasterhas a negative effect on the brain of a child survivor.


In conclusion, people find it hard to forgettraumatic events because the information is stored in the implicitmemory. Trauma can be emotional or psychological. The most commoncauses of trauma are accidents, death, disasters, and abuse. Childrenare not safe from trauma either. Child survivors of disasters coulddevelop posttraumatic stress disorder months after the trauma. Thechildren will appear withdrawn and nightmares will be numerous. Thenumber one factor that will help children to cope with trauma istime. Support from family and staying away from things that remindthem of the disaster will help children to cope with trauma due to adisaster.


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