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The World of Childhood and the Developing Child

Children are one of the most vulnerable groups during and following a

disaster. A disaster is a strange event that is not easily understood. It is emotionally confusing and frightening and results in children needing significant instrumental and emotional support from adults. Children, parents, and whole families in need of assistance are found at shelters, recovery centers, and other locations. A review of some basic principles and reminders from child developmental theory show how a child’s current stage of development influences their behavior and their understanding of traumatic events associated with the disaster. Below is a list of basic principles that may be helpful as we, the helpers,are rapidly trying to determine the best strategy for providing assistance to children in both the early stages of crisis response and the later stages of emotional recovery from the disaster: Be a supportive listener. Be sensitive to the child’s cultural, ethnic, and racial experiences. Respond in a way that is consistent with the child’s level of development. Be aware of the child’s emotional status. Is the child actively afraid or withdrawn? Determine if the child is comfortable/secure about his/her current surround-ings and those of his or her parents, and other significant persons/pets,  Assist the child in normalizing his/her experiences. Seek assistance from a child specialist or mental health professional, ifnecessary. Assistance is needed when the helper does not know what to door think or if he or she is making things worse. Theories of Child Development  An abundance of popular press is available on the subject of children. opical areas of interest include how to raise, parent, educate, and disciplinechildren. It is important, especially when one is in a period of stress and turmoil,to step back from the issues at hand and assess the current situation from theperspective of life during non-crisis routine times. Tis is especially true whenengaging children. Te most important concept to remember is that children are different fromadults; childhood is different from adulthood. As trained child health workers or

disaster mental health outreach workers who encounter children as survivors of a disaster, the preceding statement seems with a moment’s reflection as obvious. In fact, the reality is so obvious that it is often overlooked. Jean Piaget, renowned for his elegant theory of child development, formulated much of his theory from simply observing how his own children responded to their environment. Piaget, the scientist-observer, systematically confronted his children at different chronological ages with various mental challenges and recorded his observations of their responses. Classic examples from his work illustrate how children perceive the world differently at various chronological ages. Piaget (Flavell, 1963) noted young children have difficulty observing objects from more than one perspective.

For example, a seven-year-old is shown two glass containers: one is short, wide, and filled with water; the other is empty, tall, and slim in shape. Te child is convinced that when the liquid from the short container is transferred to the tall one, the volume of the contents actually changes as well. Similarly, when a child of ten or eleven is asked to solve a problem that requires abstract reasoning, such as a problem of logical inference (i.e., a>b and b>c; therefore, a>c), the child is often baffled by the solution.However, when the same problem is presented with solid objects, it is easily solved.Because the objects are concrete and readily visible, he or she easily recognizes the relationship. An adolescent, on the other hand, can solve this problem in the“abstract” by creating mental images of a, b, and c and then solving the problem in his or her head.Piaget was trained as a biologist and based much of his theory of development on the notion that organisms seek homeostasis or a steady state of balance or equilibrium. With respect to humans, he postulated that as we grow we change internally and thus, our capacity to engage the environment changes as well. Throughout our development we experience states of disequilibrium and seek to return to a state of equilibrium. Te mechanisms he proposed are two active processes of assimilation and accommodation. Simply put, assimilation is the process of interpreting new information within the context of our existing cognitive structure, while simultaneously accommodating to the new information or demands of our environment. Trough the tension of these two ongoing processes we develop our cognitive knowledge and capacities. Thus, we develop from an infant who responds primarily to sensations to an adult who is capable of complex abstract reasoning. All of us can recall conversations with friends who related their frustration as parents, complaining that their children are disobedient and refuse to do their chores. Is this refusal to behave and do the chores simply because the child is

disobedient? Or is it because the parent is issuing commands in a manner that requires the child to translate the “abstract” orders into concrete actions, when they have not yet developed the necessary cognitive skills? While a comprehensive discussion of cognitive developmental theories is beyond the scope of the subject at hand, it is important to recognize that children think and construct their responses to the world in different ways depending on their current level or stage of cognitive development.In summary, we should be aware when we meet a child that they are operating in the world with a different set of cognitive structures than adults and are interpreting information from the environment in a different fashion. In the next chapter, there are a number of illustrations of how this actually works. Cosario (1997) recently reasserted that when trying to understand children, we must remember that childhood is not simply an apprenticeship to the “real” world of adulthood, but is the current world in which children operate. It is the environment in which cognitive, social, and emotional development occur for individual children. “Children create and participate in their own unique peer cultures by creatively taking or appropriating information from the adult worldto address their own peer concerns” (p.18). Hartup (1979) suggests that children really experience two worlds: the world of adult-child interactions, such as with teachers and parents, and the world of peer interactions with children of similar age. We must be aware of the simultaneous presence of both these environments to understand and relate to children as developing individuals. Te emotional development of children parallels, complements, and interacts with their cognitive development. Kagan (1982) has shown in studies of normal infant development that when confronted with new and different information infants may smile if the information is successfully integrated, and they show fear by crying or withdrawing if they cannot make sense of the information. Te study of emotional development affirms that emotions are central to survival.

Through emotional expression the infant expresses distress (a soiled diaper or hunger), pleasure(being comfortable and having a full stomach), and fear of strangers. As children in middle school and high school, we learn to respect the social standard of non-aggression toward peers and acquire the skills necessary to problem solve conflicts and modulate emotional expression accordingly. By adolescence we are well skilled in expressing empathy, pride, shame, guilt, and other emotions. Thus, throughout normal development we learn more sophisticated strategies of emotional expression. Closely tied to emotional development is the development of attachment. 

Attachment theory as originally developed by John Bowlby (1982) integrates psychoanalytic concepts of child development with parts of cognitive psychology, ethnology, and human information processing. He defines attachment theory as a way of conceptualizing “… the propensity of human beings to make strong affectional bonds to particular others, and of explaining the many forms of emotional distress and personality disturbance including anxiety, anger, depression, and emotional detachment to which unwilling separation and loss give rise”(Bowlby, 1982, p. 39). Attachment refers to the affectional bond that forms between a nurturing figure, usually the mother, and her child in the course of time and in response to consistent care. Bowlby states that there is an innate tendency within the human baby to seek and maintain proximity to the attachment figure. Tis behavior has the function of protecting children from the risk of harm


Mimi Rothschild

Mimi Rothschild is the Founder and CEO of the Global Grief Institute which provides Certification training programs forGrief Coach, Trauma Coach, End of Life Coach, and Children's Grief Coach. She is a survivor who has buried 3 of her children and her husband of 33 years. She is available for speaking engagements and comments to the press on any issue surrounding thriving after catastrophic loss. MEDIA INQUIRIES:

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