Report from the Disaster Area Part 1: Healing Mothers and Dealing with Children in Natural Disasters - Projects



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Report from the Disaster Area Part 1: Healing Mothers and Dealing with Children in Natural Disasters


As primary psychological care for mothers in coping with the earthquake disaster, it is necessary to help them accept their own anxiety and to admit the feeling of sorrow, fear, and shock. In this context, examples are presented on how to deal with children. These are based on various investigative studies as well as the author's own experience with her children. The author states that parents' (positive) attitudes and sound mental balance have the best stabilizing effects for children.

Healthcare, Honami Yoshida, children, psychological care, maternal and child health, disaster, support activities for disaster areas

I would like to talk about how I cope and what I keep in mind as a mother and as a doctor facing the post-disaster reality of the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami and nuclear crisis.

After the earthquake, people all over Japan must have felt the need to do something for people in the disaster area. As the seriousness of the disaster became obvious, everyone must have felt as if they had been directly affected.

I myself had felt a sense of helplessness and guilt for ten days after the earthquake. Although living in Tokyo, I was frightened by aftershocks everyday. Every time I felt aftershocks, I thought of the people in the disaster area. I was thinking, "I want to go there to help them, but I am here. Why?" or "I feel sorry for the people in the disaster area, because I can eat delicious food, but they can't." Even though I was with my children, my habit of positive thinking had disappeared, and I felt distracted.

My four-year-old daughter started wetting her bed about a week after the earthquake. Although she used to be a very good child, she started throwing temper tantrums over trifles, could not understand well. When I asked what was wrong, she burst into tears and said, "Because you are angry." I was surprised. I tried to speak to her as I usually did, but I might have unconsciously scowled or spoken to her in a strong tone. In fact, I was frustrated by my own feeling of helplessness and indecisiveness every day. My daughter could not understand these feelings of mine and might have worried that she had done something wrong. Regretting this, I made it up to her by making her feel secure and showing how much I loved her. I held her in a sling, and we took baths together and pretended she was still a baby.

I suggest that mothers all over Japan, who are also distressed by such devastation and feeling of anxiety about the future, accept their own anxiety and admit to having feelings of sorrow, fear, and shock. Mothers tend to put themselves second and their family's health and happiness first. However, it is necessary for mothers to have their own private time. This means getting off from the Internet, for example, while their children are taking a nap or in the middle of the night, and experiencing the process of accepting their feelings by talking to themselves: "How am I feeling?" "It was difficult to handle the situation and scary, wasn't it?" or "I certainly tried hard." Next, I will discuss how mothers should look after their children while respecting themselves at the same time.

"The manual of medical aid in natural disasters (PDF, Japanese)" provides advice on children's behavior and reactions based on practical experience.

Young children sometimes react to a catastrophic event in their daily activities in response to changes in lifestyle and the reaction of adults. It is important for adults to spend some relaxing time, to communicate, and to have physical contact with their children. Adults should play with, talk to, or hug their children, and show them that things are all right." We must be careful not to forcibly separate children from their parents or other family members, because it causes them anxiety.

Although school-age children are able to verbally express themselves and communicate, children in the lower grades sometimes react in the same way as that of infants. The children, who cannot help the busy adults around them, sometimes feel lonely or restless. Adults should think of ways for children to participate in chores that they can do regularly as a family member. These should be chores that children can do safely and comfortably. It is also important not to exclude children from knowing what is going on, but explain to them what adults are doing in what situation. Since some children can understand what is happening around them, they may over-adjust to the situation by controlling their emotions too much to avoid causing concern.

Based on the above, there are probably things that can start doing today depending on the age of the child. These include making them feel safe, explaining the situation even though they cannot understand it, demonstrating a sincere attitude, and designating chores they can do to help others. I, myself as a mother, realized that it was better to be active with my children and try to make myself too busy to dwell on the earthquake.

In addition, the website of "Children's Hospital Boston" explains specifically about how to describe the earthquake disaster to children and the way to handle the situation so as not to cause future harm.
The following is the summary of the website.

Explain the situation as simply as possible to children aged eight years or younger. Tell them that everything possible has been done, emphasizing that their family and close friends are safe. It helps children to feel safe and secure when they are told that adults are trying to make things better no matter what happens.

As for the children between 8 to 12 years, adults should deal with their endless questions. Let the children know that people all over the world are providing support. Children can control their anxiety better if they are given a scientific explanation of why natural disaster occurred.

It is often said that in addition to post-earthquake donations, the sustained interest of people is a great help in supporting the disaster area. There are various types of support activities. Although you may feel frustrated by not being able to do anything right now, you will definitely be needed later. You might feel you have not done enough, but console yourself without any sentimentality. Do your best wherever you are, while watching over your children. If you get tired before starting support activities for the disaster area, you will get absolutely nothing out of it. Parents' firm and sustained supportive attitude toward the disaster area is the best stabilizing force for children.

As for myself I will try to stay healthy until the day when a doctor, who has knowledge of public health and can gently listen to people, is needed, so that I can work as a healer of the pain and sorrow of many people.

The original report was posted on the CRN Japanese site in April 2011.

Honami Yoshida
Dr. Yoshida completed residency in obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN) at St. Luke’s International Hospital in 1998, and entered the Graduate School of Nagoya University in 2001. After receiving her doctoral degree, she gave birth to her first child in 2004 (at the age of 31) while undergoing clinical training in Germany. After returning to Japan in 2005, she began working to open a women’s health care clinic. She gave birth to her second and the third child in 2006 (at the age of 36) and in 2008 (at the age of 38), respectively. She started studying in the U.S from August 2008, and completed a master’s degree in public health (MPH) at Harvard School of Public Health in 2010. She gave birth to her fourth child in Boston in July 2010, one month after her commencement ceremony. At Harvard School of Public Health, she is now working on a study of medical services in OB/GYN and measures to counter the declining birthrate, while working as an OB/GYN in Japan and raising her four children.