Children are particularly vulnerable to psychological difficulties as a result of experiencing Hurricane Ivan, a visiting psychiatrist said during the Fidelity Group’s Cayman Business Outlook 2005 conference Wednesday.
‘The notion that children are resilient and can more easily get through these things is now known not to be true,’ said Dr. David Waltos, a psychiatrist from Baltimore, Maryland. ‘Children actually need more attention. They suffer twice, once through themselves and once through their parents.’
In addition to speaking at the Fidelity conference, local General Practitioner Dr. Sook Yin arranged for Dr. Waltos to speak to the senior students at Cayman Prep and High School Thursday morning.
Dr. Waltos stressed that it is quite normal for children to have difficulties coping psychologically with traumatizing catastrophes like Hurricane Ivan. ‘It is a very natural response to a very unnatural situation,’ he said, adding that about one in every five children could be expected to develop symptoms of psychological distress.
Depending on their age, children can show different symptoms. Dr. Waltos said younger children can actually show signs of regression. Some toilet-trained children might start wetting the bed again, and some children will start sucking their thumbs again. Others might become clingier to their parents than they were before.
Some younger children might draw pictures of the hurricane because they do not know any other way of communicating their feelings, Dr Waltos said. ‘They’re trying to make sense of the senseless.’
Older children having trouble psychologically dealing with Hurricane Ivan could exhibit varying kinds of bad behaviour. They might be irritably aggressive. ‘It might make parents wonder something like ‘what happened to you – you were so good before,” Dr. Waltos said.
Parents should be understanding, Dr. Waltos said. ‘A certain amount of bad behaviour should be tolerated.’
Some children can become emotionally numb or apathetic. Other might have trouble focusing on their school work. School grades might go down from what is normally achieved.
‘Some eat too much, but most don’t eat enough,’ Dr. Waltos said of the distressed children.
After identifying the problem, the key for children to recover psychologically is talking about it. ‘But only when they’re ready,’ Dr. Waltos said.
Dr. Waltos said connecting with others was important. ‘Think of yourself as a playing card,’ he told the Prep high school students. ‘If you have two cards, you can lean them against each other and make them stand up. But if you only have one card, it will always fall down when you try to stand it up.
‘It’s very helpful to talk to your family, you friends or you teachers about what you’re feeling and just get it out.’
Beyond talking, Dr. Waltos said it was important parents give their children physical comfort and reassurance they will be safe.
Another thing Dr Waltos said is essential is re-establishing structure and day-to-day routines for children. ‘School is very important,’ he said. ‘Children might see it as a rut, but it’s a good rut. One of the main ways of regaining a sense of normalcy for children after an event like this is getting back to school.’
Having fun is something else that should be encouraged for children. ‘Some psychiatrists even suggest teachers give students less difficult assignments for a while,’ he said, getting smiling approval from the students.
Speaking to the students, Dr. Waltos urged them seek out help if they felt they needed it. ‘It doesn’t mean you’re crazy,’ he stressed, adding that those who seek help when they need it can recover twice as fast as those who do not.
In the end, it is important for children and adults to accept the fact Cayman will never be the same again.
‘There will be a new normal,’ he said.
Dr. Waltos said the transformation process takes time, but things should seem normal again 12 to 18 months after the hurricane.