In the aftermath of a disaster: Meaning making and posttraumatic growth in Norwegian children and adolescents who where exposed to the 2004 tsunami

Hafstad, G. S. (2011). In the aftermath of a disaster: Meaning making and posttraumatic growth in Norwegian children and adolescents who where exposed to the 2004 tsunami. Oslo: Universitetet i Oslo. Psykologisk institutt. (Doktorgradsavhandling).

Every year, a large number of children are exposed to disasters of some sort. These experiences may profoundly affect the children’s lives, and knowledge about processes which may facilitate their coping and adaptation in the aftermath is crucial.

THE PRIMARY AIM of this study was to examine narrative construction, meaning making, and posttraumatic growth in children and adolescents after they had been exposed to the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia.

A SECOND AIM was to explore ways in which the parents may contribute to their children’s coping and adaptation.

Children and their parents were interviewed face-to-face ten months and two and a half years following their return home. The interviews comprised information about the degree of trauma exposure, trauma narratives, and indicators of post-trauma adjustment in parents and their children, including measures of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and posttraumatic growth (PTG). Qualitative and quantitative analyses were applied in exploring the research questions.

The first research aim was to examine how the parents supported their children’s coping in the aftermath of the disaster (paper I). We found that parents described an increased awareness of the fact that their children could display behavioral or emotional changes. When parents detected any changes in their children, they attempted to understand the nature and severity of these changes by attributing these to either the disaster experience, or to familiar characteristics of the child. The parents reported a range of strategies aimed at either preventing or reducing symptoms. Despite the traumatic exposure the children had experienced, most parents believed in the healing effect of resuming normal life.

The findings suggest that parents constitute valuable resources for assessing and interpreting distress in their children, and provide coping support. Three themes seemed to be of particular significance to the creation of meaning in the narratives: a) the reconstruction of control and predictability through narratives, b) the importance of the relational aspects of an experience, including protection and separation from parents and siblings, and c) the distinction between the shared and the private narrative. Contrary to expectations, there were few age differences in the way children and adolescents constructed their narratives and made meaning of their experience.

THE THIRD AIM of this project was to examine the extent to which the children and adolescents exposed to the tsunami reported PTG, and how reports of PTG related to the disaster exposure, their posttraumatic stress symptoms, and indicators of their parents’ symptoms and post-trauma functioning (papers III and IV).

The children and adolescents reported PTG as a result of their experience with the tsunami, although to a lesser extent than what has been reported in other disaster studies. The level of fear experienced during the disaster was associated with higher levels of PTG, while their objective exposure was not. Furthermore, posttraumatic stress symptoms were positively related to PTG when assessed concurrently, and PTG was not associated with a greater decrease in symptoms over time.

Finally, two indicators of parental post-trauma functioning were positively related to PTG in children. While parents’ own PTG was associated with higher levels of growth in the children, parents who had been on sick leave due to the disaster had children who reported lower levels of PTG.

Collectively, the findings in the study contribute to a broadened understanding of the pathways for children’s trauma recovery and how parents can contribute to their children’s adaptation after disasters

The Researchers

In the aftermath of a disaster: Meaning making and posttraumatic growth in Norwegian children and adolescents who where exposed to the 2004 tsunami

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