Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Impact of Hurricane Media Cues on Children

radar image of hurricaneAs we watch the images and follow the updates of the paths of hurricanes, we are confronted with the fine line media must walk between providing necessary, often life-saving information and escalating anxiety and traumatic reactions. While adults, themselves, need to find a viable way to regulate their exposure to traumatic media cues, it is particularly important to consider the impact of disaster media cues on children.

Given the centrality of media in this culture the impact of media coverage of man-made or natural disasters on children can easily go unrecognized.

  • What becomes the white noise or background sound of TV’s in every public place and often in many homes is a never ending reminder to a child that something frightening is about to happen- although no one seems to be talking about it.
  • For pre-school and even grade school children, the combination of not fully grasping a verbal TV message while registering a tone of alarm or seeing frightening images can be very terrifying.
  • Given a child’s perspective of time and place, there may be little ability to differentiate how close they are to what they are seeing.
  • Children, as we found with 9/11, are often  unable to determine that what they are seeing is a repeat of the same video clip and not more planes or waves or houses blown away.

Research Verifies the Impact on Children

  • According to a New York City Board of Education survey, tens of thousands of public school children in New York City experienced chronic nightmares, fear of public places, and other indicators of post-traumatic stress syndrome several months after the World Trade Center attack. Importantly, in addition to the trauma of the initial disaster,  New York University researchers reported that children also experienced “ongoing anxiety due to the frequent ‘alerts’ as well as the media blitz which frequently showed funerals of firefighters and pictures of destruction taking place throughout the world.”
  • Studying the relations between child exposure to media cues of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, Pfefferbaum and colleagues found that child exposure to disaster media cues was positively and significantly associated with child PTSD symptoms.

What is the Impact of Hurricane Media Cues on Children?

In a 2011 study, researchers compared two groups of Latino children in a hurricane prone area to determine if they would show an elevated state of anxiety in response to disaster media cues.

In the first group 185 of the 248 children were shown a 7 minute video of the news coverage of a category 5 Hurricane that had make landfall 10 years earlier in the region where the children lived. They were then immediately asked to rate their level of anxiety.

Another group of 69 from the 248 were simple shown an educational 7 minute video on weather and were asked to rate their level of anxiety. The children shown the hurricane disaster video reported a significantly higher state anxiety.

Ideas for Responding to Children

The most significant mediator in a child’s experience of media cues is the response of a parent or loving safe person.

Watch the media together, as a family or if your child comes in when you are watching – do a mini debrief. Reframe and explain on his/her level what is being discussed and what is happening. Ask for questions.

Watch for information and then turn it off. Let it be a source rather than a trigger of ongoing state of anxiety.

Explain what people do in these situations. Make a plan for what you will do as a family. Some children want to write up the plan and post it. Some need to see that you have extra water or that you have sleeping bags in the car in case you have to go to Grandma’s.

Follow the child’s lead. Some have no wish to talk too much about it. If he/she is not talking but seems extremely quiet, very agitated, having nightmares – get closer, play during the day, do some project together, bake, bike – activities often invite informal sharing. It is just being together that matters and resets the security.

Respect the need for defenses. Often children and adolescents (much less adults) need to block out overwhelming situations for a time. The choice to play  their game, play their music, do their hair, etc. rather than focus on the disaster can be a functional coping strategy.

Invite mastery of what is unknown and frightening.  Children can be invited to learn more about hurricanes – pictures and stories read with the goal of  “learning” lowers the feeling of helplessness and anxiety.

Regulate your stress and disclosure in front of your children.  The most frightening thing to a child is a parent who is panicked.

If you are stressed and your child makes some reference to your being upset – you can share that it is pretty common to feel stress at unexpected event times but that doesn’t mean you can’t still watch your favorite show, make the pizza with Dad or have a great plan if you need.

The Media is a Crucial Dimension of Your Child’s Life: Avoiding the media is no gift to your child.  The media is an ever expanding window: good, bad, frightening and wonderful. Modeling the proper use and regulation of viewing at potentially traumatic times – is the gift worth sharing.

Photo by Core Burn, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.