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Hurricane Katrina's Little Heroes

Are the kids faced with adult responsibilities today at emotional risk tomorrow?

WebMD Feature

With great tragedy often comes great heroism. And in this sense, Hurricane Katrina is no exception. While heroes come in all shapes and sizes, many children seem to be rising to this occasion.

Whether it's the poignant image of a 6-year-old boy holding a 5-month-old and leading a group of five toddlers to safety in downtown New Orleans or the lemonade stands run by children popping up on street corners and country roads across the U.S to raise money to help hurricane survivors, growing numbers of children seem to be pitching in however they can.

But what effects will this tragedy have on the mental health of those children who have been most affected?

"Most people when faced with trauma feel that if there is something they can do to feel more constructive, they will do it," and children are no exception, says Stuart Goldman, MD, a child psychiatrist at Children's Hospital in Boston.

"The majority of children faced with trauma do try to rally, but many can't rally that much," he says. "The images of young kids taking care of younger children are probably the marked exception, not the rule."

Resilient Kids

For kids who do pitch in, "there will be no change long term if they can go back to the way they were before the tragedy," he explains. "Resilient kids are surrounded by supportive adults that guide them and they feel as though they have the capacity to make a difference in their life." For example, the 8-year-old who is helpful to younger children has a positive resiliency factor.

"If you cope well that probably sets you up for being in a better position later," agrees Gail Saltz, MD, a psychoanalyst at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in New York and the author of Becoming Real: Defeating the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back.

"A child who is able to do something that helped will be in a better place down the road because they were able to exert control and not be a victim," she says, adding that such behaviors take away helplessness.

Kids who didn't lose a parent or their home will get back on track as the school year starts and things return to some semblance of normalcy, Goldman says. However, "kids know being sheltered in the Houston Astrodome who will be there for the next three months and whose families have lost everything and will have to relocate are at the greatest risk for 'nonresilience,'" or the inability to bounce back from tragedy or adversity.

"Poverty and disadvantage are all risk factors for nonresilience," he says, "and that is the population that took it on the chin with Katrina."

Echoes of 9/11

After Sept. 11, 2001, many children were affected psychologically -- especially in New York and its surrounding areas. But "as soon as things calmed down, younger kids stopped worrying about it if they hadn't been directly affected," Goldman says.

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