How Do Traumas And Disasters Affect Your Child’s Morality?

Family wellness is more than just a matter of eating well, exercising and spending time together; moral wellness, and a strong sense of emotional wellbeing, are also important to pass on to your child, especially when disaster hits. But when a disaster or trauma does occur, will your child become more kind and empathetic, or focus more on self-preservation?

According to a new study published in Psychological Science, how your child reacts to a disaster may depend on his or her age. US and Canadian Scientists, led by Kang Lee of the University of Toronto, were already collaborating with Chinese researchers in the town in Sichuan province on a study of altruistic behaviour when an earthquake struck in May 2008, killing 87,000 people, including many children. The researchers therefore had a unique opportunity to test the altruistic tendencies of students before a disaster, one month after it struck, and then again three years later.

They found that before the earthquake, both six- and nine-year olds donated one or two stickers, out of ten, to an anonymous classmate, but after the disaster struck, and 95% were homeless, and almost 2% had lost an immediate family member, the six-year-olds became more selfish on average, giving an average of half a sticker (meaning some gave none at all). The nine-year-olds, on the other hand, were seemingly more compassionate, and donates roughly four stickers, nearly half of their allotment. However, three years after the earthquake both numbers had reverted to their initial levels.

According to study co-author Jean Decety, of the University of Chicago, ‘Our study demonstrates that a natural disaster affects children’s pro-social tendencies, and [does so] differently depending on their age. Young ones’ acute response is to become more egoistic and older ones’ [immediate response is to become] more altruistic.’

He speculated that empathy accounted for the differences: ‘There are developmental differences in empathy,’ he says, because the prefrontal regions in the brain responsible for such control may not be as developed in younger children as it is in their older counterparts. ‘Adverse events appear to cause six-year-olds to revert back to selfish ways typical of early childhood,’ the authors said. Decety added that the finding ‘clearly shows that empathy and altruism are naturally linked, and that pro-social behaviour and caring for others have evolved from our natural capacity to share emotions and care for others.’

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