Monday, January 18, 2010

Haitian Earthquake: Children and Chronic Stress

We are all saddened and disturbed by the pictures of devastation coming out of Haiti in the aftermath of the massive earthquake. I personally feel so blessed and fortunate to live in the U.S. where, although we are not immune to natural disasters, we have many resources to help cope with and recover from such events. I wasn't aware until recently that prior to the earthquake Haiti has also experience massive flooding and several severe hurricanes in recent years. Any one of these natural disasters would be devastating but to experience all of them in the course of a few short years is more than any country could bear. Of course, even before the earthquake Haiti was already one of the poorest countries on the planet and one of the least able to handle such disasters.

My thoughts are with all the Haitian people but I can't help but especially feel for the children of this country. Unfortunately, disasters and wars in the past have provided opportunities for researchers to understand how such stressful circumstances affect children and their development. Children, like adults, can handle certain amounts of stress. Our bodies are set up to respond to stress in a "fight or flight" reaction. Stress hormones (primarily cortisol) increase rapidly under stress and prepare our bodies to react. Under most circumstances, this rise in stress hormones is short-lived and our bodies return to normal after the threat has passed. In the case of chronic stress, however, these stress hormones remain high for extended periods of time. Without the help of an adult to help children cope with stress and thus help their body return to "normal," children can face many long-term negative consequences of chronic stress. When stress hormones remain elevated for long periods of time, they can interrupt the processes in the developing brain of young children, resulting in problems with functions such as memory, learning, and self-regulation. Exposure to chronic stress can put children at risk for problems later in life as well such as physical illnesses and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

With these facts in mind, please keep the Haitian people in your thoughts. The children of this country especially need all the help they can get from caring, responsive adults to cope with this disaster and the resulting upheaval. If you are able, consider donating to one of the many organizations serving Haiti such as Doctors Without Borders or Red Cross.

Also keep in mind all children, even those in relatively privileged countries, who experience stress all too often in their young lives due to domestic abuse, poverty, or mental illness. All children deserve a safe, peaceful childhood.

Reference: The Science of Early Childhood Development: Closing the Gap Between What We Know and What We Do. (2007). Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University.
Photo credit: Red Cross
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