Talking with Children About Natural Disasters: Maternal Acknowledgment, Child Emotion Talk, and Child Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms

Abstract

Background

Talking about past experiences with parents is generally thought to promote positive psychological adjustment in children. Less is known about parent–child co-reminiscing when discussing past traumatic experiences, such as natural disasters, a unique type of shared trauma that can have long-lasting, and variable, psychological impacts on children and families.

Objective

The current study examined the association between qualities of parent–child co-reminiscing and children’s posttraumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) following exposure to a devastating tornado.

Method

Forty-nine children ages 8–12 years (49% female; 78% White/Non-Hispanic) and their mothers who experienced a category EF-5 tornado in May 2011 participated in this study and provided joint recollections about their tornado experiences approximately 14–18 months post-tornado. Children also provided individual recollections about their tornado-related experiences. Individual recollections were coded for negative and positive emotion words and parent–child conversations were coded for maternal acknowledgement of child generated content.

Results

Maternal acknowledgement moderated the link between children’s use of both positive and negative emotion words and child tornado-related PTSS, such that children’s use of both positive and negative emotion words was associated with higher levels of PTSS but only at lower levels of maternal acknowledgment.

Conclusions

Maternal acknowledgement of child expressions may be a protective factor for disaster-exposed children. Understanding how children and parents discuss trauma experiences, and how aspects of discussions are associated with youth mental health, may ultimately inform interventions to help children and parents communicate following disaster exposure in a way that promotes optimal growth and recovery.

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Funding

This work was funded in part by the Pioneer Classes Dissertation Award administered by the University of Kansas (KU) Endowment Association on behalf of the KU Clinical Child Psychology Program, the Scott Mesh Honorary Scholarship for Research in Psychology, administered by the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students, the Doctoral Student Research Fund, administered by the KU Graduate School, and the Psychology Strategic Initiatives Research Grant, administered by the KU Psychology Department, all awarded to Dr. Hambrick.

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Correspondence to Madelaine R. Abel.

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All parents provided informed consent and youth provided assent.

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Abel, M.R., Hambrick, E.P. & Vernberg, E.M. Talking with Children About Natural Disasters: Maternal Acknowledgment, Child Emotion Talk, and Child Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms. Child Youth Care Forum (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10566-021-09605-5

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Keywords

  • Natural disasters
  • Co-reminiscing
  • Posttraumatic stress symptoms
  • Parent–child relationships