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Tracy James
IU Communications

Mary Hardin
IU School of Medicine

IU Health and Wellness: Coping with disaster; obesity-autism link; and blogging your health crisis

Research and insights from Indiana University

April 18, 2012

IU Health and Wellness for April discusses the following topics:

Helping kids cope with a natural disaster
Obesity-autism link a reminder to eat well, exercise during pregnancy
Blogging to ease communication stress during a health crisis

Helping kids cope with a natural disaster


With the recent tornadoes that devastated parts of southern Indiana and other areas of the country, it is natural for children to be scared and stressed by the disaster.

"Whether children were directly affected by the tornado or they see the images on TV, children are likely to ask questions," said Maria Schmidt, assistant professor of human development and family studies in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at Indiana University Bloomington.

A serious unexpected event like a tornado is classified as catastrophic stress, according to Schmidt. It is a shock to everyone. She encourages parents to communicate with their children about the disaster and give children information to help them understand what happened.

She offered the following suggestions:

  • Deal with your feelings first. As parents, it is important to know how to cope with your own stress so you can help your children. Helping yourself gives you more resources for when your child approaches you and needs you physically or emotionally to understand their own stress.
  • Think of how you react to stress. Use some of your own techniques to relieve stress and try to think about what makes you feel better. Consider what it was like to be their age and try to explain things in a way that they will understand.
  • Sympathize with their feelings. If children state that they are worried or scared, try saying things like "I'm worried too, but here is how we are going to deal with it." Reassure them that you have a plan to do your best to keep your family safe. Let them know that if or when there is bad weather, you are going to listen to the sirens, tune into the weather radio and take proper shelter.
  • Answer questions directly. Provide children with as much information as is appropriate for their age, and answer questions as directly and honestly as possible. When adults have information about a topic, they tend to feel better, and children will feel the same way. If they have information about what happened, they will have better coping strategies for understanding what is happening.
  • Involve your child in decision-making. If your house was damaged by the tornado and you are seeking a temporary new home, communicate with your child the options that you are considering. Listen to your child about where they think they will feel the most comfortable.
  • Maintain a regular routine as much as possible. Although disaster relief is very hectic, try to keep your children engaged in their typical activities. For example, returning to school will help children feel as if life is settling back into what they know and understand.
  • Continue to encourage their play. Many young children work through frightening events by re-enacting them in their play. In this case, children playing tornado may be expressing their feelings and working through the events that have caused such a crisis.
  • Note the sense of loss. The coping process may take a long time because a disaster like this is a loss. It may be a loss of a home, belongings and even the ability to feel safe. You may find yourself repeating your answers and providing comfort over and over again. Children are asking for reassurance to know that you will keep them safe. They also do not often understand the concept of permanence. A child may ask for a stuffed animal a few months after the disaster because they do not understand that it is permanently gone. Be patient and repeat yourself.
  • Use helpful resources. The Red Cross, counseling services and social workers can help with the recovery process. Disaster relief is an emotional time, and these services can be very comforting.

Maria Schmidt can be reached at 812-855-9822 or Top

Obesity-autism link a reminder to eat well, exercise during pregnancy

Craig Erickson

Craig Erickson

Print-Quality Photo

A study released in April linking autism to obesity is more of a cautionary note to eat well-balanced meals and exercise during pregnancy than conclusive proof that obesity is a risk factor for autism, says Craig A. Erickson, M.D., director of the Christian Sarkine Autism Treatment Center at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health and assistant professor of psychiatry at the IU School of Medicine.

Erickson said the study, published in the journal Pediatrics, only shows some possible links between obesity and autism. The authors say their results should raise public health awareness about obesity in general, which is in epidemic proportions in the United States, and about obesity during pregnancy.

The study results indicated that women who were obese during pregnancy were about 67 percent more likely than normal-weight women to have autistic children. On average, women face a 1 in 88 chance of having a child with autism. The study suggests that obesity during pregnancy would increase that to a 1 in 53 chance, the authors said.

To speak with Erickson, contact Mary Hardin at 317-274-7722 or Top

Blogging to ease communication stress during a health crisis

Caring Bridge

When a loved one is diagnosed with a serious illness, keeping family and friends updated with the treatment, doctor visits and recovery process can become overwhelming. Online resources can help.

Kim Decker, assistant clinical professor at the Indiana University School of Nursing in Bloomington, says online updates are a beneficial way to communicate. Websites such as allow people to blog about how they are feeling or what happened at a recent appointment, and their friends have the option to receive an email after each post notifying them they can log on and read the information. Good communication, Decker said, can eliminate stress on the ill person, as well as their family members who are trying to manage all of the phone calls and emails.

"When a person is sick, they may not feel up to talking to people," Decker said. "Also, concerned family and friends do not want to bombard the person, but they do want to know how the person is doing. Therefore, an online resource is helpful because it can be updated and gives people the option to receive an immediate email."

Viewers also can leave messages and comments.

"It does not work the same way as social media because the person writing the website can choose who to tell that they have a CaringBridge website," Decker said.

Then the people who know about the CaringBridge website can choose to receive the email notifications when the website is updated. Social media tools like Facebook are less private, and because of the ease in sharing information, large numbers of people might unintentionally learn about the private situation.

"One risk is that people may find out about a specific concern, problem or circumstance who you do not wish to have that knowledge," Decker said. "So, you just need to be aware of the details you are sharing in a post on Facebook or social media."

Decker can be reached at 317-919-1614 or Top

For additional assistance, contact Tracy James at 812-855-0084 or For more health and wellness news, follow us at @Vitality_IU