Gulf spill can have emotional impact on children, says UAB expert

While the oil spill in the Gulf may have a profound impact on those who make their living in the region, children in the area may also feel the stress, says University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) child psychologist Vivian Friedman, Ph.D.

“When parents are stressed, children are stressed,” says Friedman, who counseled children displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “This is especially true for young children who aren’t independent of their parents. If parents talk about financial crises or other kinds of worries, it affects the children directly.”

“For younger children, it’s an issue of security,” says Friedman. “Children think that parents are supposed to be all-powerful and protect them from everything and make everything bad go away. Here is an example when parents aren’t all-powerful. They can’t fix the oil spill and they can’t fix the financial problems that result from the spill. So, for small children, it is like pulling the rug out from under them.

“Financial stresses can be very difficult for children,” she says. “Sometimes parents succeed in sheltering children from the problems, but many parents wear their stress on their sleeve and share their problems directly with their children. If mom and dad say they are worried about finances, children may see themselves becoming homeless and living on the streets forever.

“Children under stress can suffer from anxiety, have sleep problems or have problems paying attention,” Friedman says. “Some of the children may have to move away from the only home they have ever known, and that can bring about a lot a stress to a child’s life. After Hurricane Katrina those kids experienced a fairly significant upheaval, and they lost a lot of material possessions. However, most children are able to adjust over time.

“Parents can help their children by keeping things as calm and as normal as possible,” she says. “As best they can, parents should discuss their worries with other adults and not with their children. It’s also a good idea to prepare children in advance for any major changes such as a move to a new home or city. If there are financial changes, it’s OK to tell a child ‘You can’t have a cell phone this year because we’re having some problems.’ That’s an important part of growing up.

“But, you don’t want to make everything seem catastrophic by saying things like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to make dinner tonight’ because that’s just too scary for kids.”

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