Researchers in psychiatry, psychology, and other fields wanted to understand the impact of these kinds of experiences on child development, and what could be done to prevent problems and promote better development in children with these experiences.

Factors That Impact the Resilience of Children

Masten highlighted several of the top factors that impact the resilience of children in a disaster. Dose is key, not just the magnitude of the current situation but also prior exposure to adversity, ongoing adversities that often cascade following a mass trauma experience, and cumulative adversity. There is also much interest now in toxic stressors that can alter health, well-being, or epigenetic status in the long term. This also reinforces David Schonfeld’s earlier point clarifying that response to one event in a child’s life is actually a response to all of the events in that child’s life, and having providers maintain trauma histories can be helpful in understanding a child’s response to a singular event and how it might be impacted from previous stressors.

Other experiences of great adversity in children’s lives are relevant to understanding disaster, but context matters a great deal. Context matters not just in terms of the history and the nature of the exposures, but also the recovery context. One of the most powerful predictors of how children will do is to track the quality of the recovery context, she said.

Masten cited a growing recognition of sensitive periods in the course of development when children are more susceptible to certain kinds of exposures (e.g., radiation, toxins associated with disaster, traumatic stress). These exposures can be experienced directly by the child, or prenatally because the pregnant mother is experiencing severe trauma and stress. Studies in Finland in the aftermath of Chernobyl, for example, are showing biological sequelae in children who were prenatally exposed not to the radiation, but to the extreme fear and stress experienced by the mother during pregnancy. Many aspects of a child’s risk exposure, resources, and response capabilities are dependent on where the child is developmentally. Expectations of children and how they are going to be able to handle stress also varies developmentally as well as culturally. Individual differences, ranging from genetic variations to personality differences, impact how a child might interact with disaster experiences.

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