BY Russell T. Jones, Ph.D., and Jeff Randall, Ph.D.
Accidental injuries are the leading causes of fatalities among children. More than 105,000 children die from accidents annually; another 40,000 to 50,000 are permanently injured each year by accidental injury.1 Fire safety training is one area of research that falls under the broad subject matter of childhood injury prevention.
Jones and his colleagues2-7 conducted a series of programmatic studies targeting fire emergencies. Early studies focused on teaching children when and whom to telephone in an emergency. Subsequent studies targeted instructing children on how to evacuate fire emergency situations. Operant and cognitive (thinking)-behavioral approaches were adopted as methods for teaching acquisition and maintenance of fire safety skills. More recent studies taught children how to reduce their fears of fire with a goal of improving functioning during fire emergencies. However, to date no fire-related study has examined actual coping processes children engage in during fire emergency situations prior to training. Consequently, a comprehensive picture of what children do and think when confronted with a fire emergency is yet to be obtained. Determining how children cope during fire emergencies will likely aid in the development of improved methods for teaching such skills and the gaining of insight into how children cope with these and other emergencies.
Although there are several ways to conceptualize coping8 the cognitive appraisal method of stress and coping adult model was used throughout this investigation. Supported by Lazarus9-12 and Lazarus and Folkman13, this model was selected because of its transactional nature. More specifically, within this perspective, the person and the environment are viewed as an ongoing relationship of reciprocal action, each affecting and, in turn, being affected by the other.
Two mediators (buffers), appraisal and coping, are integral parts of Lazarus’ and Folkman’s theory. Appraisal can be described as a two-part cognitive evaluation process.14 During the first phase, primary appraisal, a person determines whether he is in danger. During the second phase, secondary appraisal, the person evaluates what, if anything, can be done to overcome or prevent harm, or to improve the prospects for benefit.15
Over the past decade, researchers (8) extended Lazarus and Folkman’s model to include the study of children’s stress and coping. Consequently, few studies examined the applicability of the Lazarus and Folkman model to children’s coping processes; even fewer reported on children’s appraisals in stressful situations. The small numbers of studies conducted primarily examined three components of children’s coping: situation, development, and gender.
Concerning situation, researchers16-19 (8) indicated that children engaged in significantly greater levels of problem-focused rather than emotion-focused coping in academic, interpersonal, peer difficulty, loss/separation, and physical accident situations. In contrast, children used more emotion-focused than problem-focused coping in medical situations. (16,17,19) These authors assert that the differences in the use of problem-focused or emotion-focused coping between medical and other situations occur because the other situations (i.e., academic situation, getting a bad grade on a test) may have been perceived as more controllable or changeable than the medical situation (i.e., getting a shot at the doctor’s office).
Regarding development, researchers20 (16,17,19,21-23) consistently found that when children are confronted with situations such as medical appointments, older children (ages 11-17) engage in greater levels of emotion-focused coping than younger children (ages 5-10). Older children also utilize a greater number of coping responses than younger children. (8)
In addition to quantitative differences among the age groups, Band and Weisz (17) found qualitative differences by examining specific types of problem-focused and emotion-focused coping. In general, researchers found that older children engaged in greater levels of adaptive emotion-focused coping responses than younger children. These authors argued that because of greater observational learning opportunities, older children acquired a greater level of emotion-focused coping and used emotion-focused coping more adaptively than younger children.
Finally, relating to gender, investigations indicated that girls engage in greater levels of emotion-focused coping than boys (8) and that older girls (i.e., age 12) engage in more adaptive forms of coping (16) than boys of the same age. These differences may be due in part to differences in the socialization processes that girls and boys undergo.
Given that no study to date has explored the relative impact of appraisal, situational constraints, development, and gender on children’s and adolescents’ coping in a simulated fire emergency situation, the following investigation was undertaken. The primary goal was to examine coping processes of third and eighth graders in the context of a simulated fire emergency situation. The mediating role of primary appraisals (the probability of becoming injured) and secondary appraisals (the ability to change the situation) on coping style were also examined. Three groups (Changeable, Unchangeable, and Control) were compared to determine the relative impact of these variables on functioning.
The investigators examined eight major hypotheses:
- Third and eighth graders in Unchangeable and Control groups will report a greater likelihood of injury following initial exposure to constraints of the fire emergency situation than third and eighth graders in the Changeable group.
- Third and eighth graders in the Changeable group will report a greater ability to change the fire emergency situation following initial exposure to the stimulus conditions surrounding the emergency than third and eighth graders in the Unchangeable or Control groups.
- Unchangeable and Control groups will show greater levels of emotion-focused coping than the Changeable group.
- Unchangeable and Control groups will show lower levels of problem-focused coping than the Changeable group.
- Eighth graders will show a greater level of emotion-focused coping than third graders.
- Eighth graders will show a greater level of adaptive emotion-focused coping than third graders.
- Girls will show a greater level of emotion-focused coping than boys.
- Girls will show a greater level of adaptive emotion-focused and problem-focused coping than boys.
One hundred forty-six children and adolescents participated; 76 were third graders, and 70 were eighth graders. All were enrolled in regular classrooms and ranged in age from 7-15 years. The average age was 10.5 years. The participants came from two elementary schools and one middle school. All resided in a small middle-class neighborhood in southwestern Virginia and signed a consent form as well as received written parental permission to participate in the study.
All participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups: Unchangeable, Changeable, and Control. The Unchangeable group consisted of 28 (14 male and 14 female) third graders and 24 (3 male and 21 female) eighth graders. The Changeable group contained 24 (18 male and 6 female) third graders and 24 (12 male and 12 female) eighth graders. The Control group included 24 (14 male and 10 female) third graders and 22 (10 male and 12 female) eighth graders.
Setting and Apparatus
All assessments and training sessions were conducted in simulated bedrooms within the three schools. Five classrooms were converted into bedrooms, and the following equipment was placed in each room: a cot, a shirt, a chair, a throw rug, an E-Z tilt window, and a pictorial representation of a fire.
A simulated fire emergency situation was the context for all assessment. A modified version of one of the nine situations described in Jones et al. (5) was used. The situation was entitled “fire blocking the path.” In the original version of this situation, a pictorial representation of fire was placed inside, directly in front of the bedroom door. Expert judges and firefighters validated these fire emergency situations. A test-retest coefficient of 0.80 was reported.
- Appraisal Rating Form. All participants’ appraisals were assessed using the Appraisal Rating Form developed for this investigation. The form consists of two items to assess primary and secondary appraisals. The first item, “Please circle what you think your chances of getting burned in a fire emergency are” assessed primary appraisals. The second item, “Please circle what you think you can do about a fire emergency situation,” assessed secondary appraisals. A three-point Likert Scale was provided [1=None, 2=Some, 3=A Lot] for both appraisals.
- Cognitive-Behavioral Fire Emergency Response Checklist. All participants’ behavioral responses and verbal statements of how they would cope with the simulated fire emergency situation were recorded on the Cognitive Behavioral Fire Emergency Response Checklist (CBFERC). This questionnaire consists of a checklist of 36 responses that children and adolescents will most likely engage in during a fire emergency. Additional space is provided for recording responses not contained in this set. This checklist was developed on the basis of a review of the fire safety literature and pilot data on 64 children. The 36 responses on the checklist, as well as the coping responses in which children and adolescents engaged that were not on the checklist, were classified as problem-focused or emotion-focused coping based on classification systems developed by Lazarus and Folkman (13) and Compas and colleagues (8).
Each participant was individually assessed and trained. As previously stated, the assessment included the CBFERC and the Appraisal Rating Form.
- Changeable group. An assessor brought each child into a simulated bedroom situation. The child was given the Appraisal Rating Form for the initial assessment of primary and secondary appraisals. As previously stated, the child was asked to respond to two items: (1) getting burned in a fire emergency (primary appraisal) and (2) what you think you can do about a fire emergency situation (secondary appraisal).
Following the completion of this questionnaire, the assessor played a tape recording that described the fire emergency and told the child that he could avoid getting burned.
The recording also asked, “How would you make yourself feel better and handle this fire emergency?” [The essential components of this statement (“… feel better and handle this fire emergency”) were designed to prompt the child to engage in emotion-focused as well as problem-focused coping.]
After hearing the recording, the child completed the Appraisal Rating Form for a second time to determine the impact of hearing the information on the child’s primary and secondary appraisals. The children’s behavior performances were assessed following their orientation to the simulated bedroom setting. The tape recording was replayed for each child.
The assessor recorded everything the child did or said on the CBFERC. If the child failed to say or to do anything after 10 seconds, the assessor prompted the child by asking, “How would you make yourself feel better and handle this fire emergency?” After the child responded, the child was instructed to sit on the bed and was given the Appraisal Rating Form for the third time, to determine the impact of the participant’s performing or stating coping responses on the child’s primary secondary appraisals. After the child completed this inventory, he was instructed on how to respond appropriately to the fire emergency situation.
The assessor verbalized and demonstrated the correct motor responses for the seven training steps. The child was told the following: “Now I am going to show you how to handle this fire emergency situation. Let’s pretend it is late at night; I am lying in bed, and I smell smoke in my room. I am not coughing, and my eyes are not burning. I hear the sound of the smoke detector (buzzzzz).
Slide out of bed onto the floor,
Get into a crawl position,
Crawl from my bed toward my bedroom door (there is a fire in my path),
Crawl to my chair and get my article of clothing,
Crawl to the window with my article of clothing,
Open the window from a crawling or standing position, and
Wave my article of clothing and yell for help.”
The child performed the correct movements while the assessor verbalized each step. The assessor corrected the child’s performance and gave positive feedback when the child gave the correct responses. If the child made an error, the assessor stopped the child immediately and demonstrated the correct movement. The child was given an opportunity to perform the step again. If an error was made on the second try, the assessor demonstrated the correct step once more. If an error was made on the third trial, the assessor simply verbally corrected the child, who was then instructed to move on to the next step in the sequence.
Following training, the child was given the Appraisal Rating Form for the fourth and final time, to determine the impact of training on the child’s primary and secondary appraisals. After completing this questionnaire, the child was debriefed. Specifically, the trainer reminded the child that the fire emergency was not a real situation. Then the trainer asked if the child felt upset as a result of participating in the proj- ect. None of the children or adolescents reported feeling upset. Following the debriefing, the session was complete. The entire assessment and training session lasted 15 minutes.
- Unchangeable group. The test scenario and protocol were the same, except that the children in this group were told there was no way out, that they would most likely get burned, and that there was little that could be done to change or stop the fire.
- Control group. For this group, no taped recording was used. The children were not given any information regarding the likelihood of being burned or the potential to change the fire emergency situation.
All participants in the Unchangeable and Control groups received the CBFERC on one occasion and the Appraisal Rating Form on four occasions, as did the participants in the Changeable group.
Coping responses were recorded on the CBFERC. In keeping with the classification systems of Lazarus and Folkman (13) and Compas et al. (8), the checklist contained coping responses that were initially broadly categorized as emotion-focused and problem-focused coping. Second, the coping responses were further classified as specific types of problem-focused (i.e., Planful Problem Solving or Confrontive) or emotion-focused coping (i.e., Distancing, Escaping, and Avoidance; Seeking Social Support; Self-Control; Reappraisal; or Accepting Responsibility).
Two raters classified the participants’ coping responses not on the checklist. The raters were provided with definitions and examples of emotion-focused and problem-focused coping, as well as their specific types. The definitions and examples were based on Lazarus and Folkman (13) and Compas et al (8) classification systems. The raters first classified each coping response as emotion-focused and problem-focused coping. Next, they classified each coping response as a specific type of problem-focused (i.e., Planful Problem Solving or Confrontive) or emotion-focused coping (i.e., Distancing, Escaping, and Avoidance; Seeking Social Support; Self-Control; Reappraisal; or Accepting Responsibility). Since participants rarely reported the Distancing, Reappraisal, and Accepting Responsibility forms of emotion-focused coping responses, these types were deleted from data analyses.
(For reliability information, contact Jones at (540) 231-5934 or e-mail: email@example.com.)
The three groups of children (two elementary schools and one middle school) were given follow-up tests to determine the effect of school on appraisal and coping measures. The results indicated that the two elementary schools were statistically equivalent on all dependent measures. Consequently, data from the two elementary schools were grouped together in subsequent analyses.
Descriptive Statistics of the Fire Emergency Situation
Descriptive statistics determined the proportions of emotion-focused and problem-focused coping displayed by each group. Overall, 40% of responses displayed by participants in the Control group were classified as emotion-focused coping; 60% of responses were classified as problem-focused coping. These results indicate that, in the absence of information, children are likely to view the fire emergency situation as being somewhat more comparable to an academic situation (i.e., a changeable situation) than to a medical situation (i.e., a situation over which children may feel they have little control).
Fifty-two percent of responses displayed by participants in the Unchangeable group were classified as emotion-focused coping; 48% were classified as problem-focused coping. However, only 29% of responses displayed by participants in the Changeable group were classified as emotion-focused coping, compared with 61% that were classified as problem-focused coping.
The hypothesis that third and eighth graders in the Unchangeable and Control groups would report greater levels of appraisal of injury following initial exposure to constraints of the fire emergency situation than third and eighth graders in the Changeable group was partially confirmed. The results indicated an interaction of group and time. More specifically, after hearing the taped instructions (Time 2) that described the fire emergency situation, both third and eighth graders in the Unchangeable group reported a significantly greater appraisal of getting burned (p=0.0035) than third and eighth graders in the Changeable and Control groups. It appears that the information that there was little that they could do to change the fire emergency and that they would likely get burned given to the participants in the Unchangeable group influenced them to appraise the situation as dangerous.
However, participants in the Control group, who were given little information concerning the situational threat, thus probably relied on person variables (i.e., prior knowledge of common uncontrollable events) and began exploring the environment to determine how to cope with the situation.
Because the Control group did not receive any information regarding threat of harm, it is likely that type of information played a key role in differentiating the groups. The finding that the groups were similar at the initial assessment (Time 1) suggests differences observed following the instructions (Time 2) might be attributed to the experimental manipulation. The absence of differential findings following participants’ performance in the fire emergency situation at Time 3 may be attributed to their knowing that there was actually nothing in the simulated emergency situation that could harm them. The lack of differences following training of all the groups (Time 4) is likely due to participants’ awareness that the simulated environment was harmless and their being taught how to evaluate the situation safely.
The finding that participants in the Unchangeable group, after hearing the taped instructions (Time 2), reported a greater appraisal of getting burned than participants in the Changeable and Control groups is consistent with previous research. (8,14,16,17) These researchers found that primary appraisals of threat resulted in the selection of emotion-focused coping options. Thus, such information may influence their appraisal and subsequent coping in disaster situations.
The prediction that third and eighth graders in the Changeable group would report a greater ability to change the fire emergency situation following initial exposure to the stimulus conditions surrounding the emergency than third and eighth graders in the Unchangeable and Control groups was partially confirmed. There was a significant interaction of group and time. After hearing the taped instructions (Time 2), participants in the Changeable and Control groups reported significantly greater abilities to change the fire emergency situation than third and eighth graders in the Unchangeable group. At initial assessment (Time 1), following the third and eighth graders’ performing the coping responses to the fire emergency situation (Time 3) and following the third and eighth graders’ receiving training (Time 4), the groups were statistically equivalent.
The absence of differences at initial assessment (Time 1) again suggests that the groups were comparable at initial assessment (Time 1); consequently, differences observed following initial assessment (Time 2) might be attributed to the experimental manipulation. One reason participants in the Control group did not differ from those in the Changeable group is that they were not given sufficient information to consider the situation unchangeable. Therefore, they probably relied on past experience and attempted to change the situation. The Control group was again midway between the two other groups, suggesting that the information given to the children likely played a key role in differentiating the groups.
The results are consistent with the assertions of Lazarus (12) and Folkman and Lazarus (14) that secondary appraisals of a situation’s changeable nature result in the use of problem-focused coping. Furthermore, the findings are consistent with previous research wherein students placed in changeable situations, such as academic settings, engaged in greater levels of problem-focused coping than children who encountered medical situations. (8,16,17) The implication of this finding is that information given to children may influence appraisals in disaster situations.
As predicted, third and eighth graders in the Unchangeable and Control groups displayed more emotion-focused coping than third and eighth graders in the Changeable group. One possible explanation for this is the type of information provided. Specifically, the information provided in the Unchangeable group (“There is no way out; you will likely get burned.”) might have led these participants to believe that they had few, if any, resources to assist them. Consequently, they engaged in greater levels of emotion-focused coping than participants in the Changeable group, who were told that they could change the situation and that they would likely not get burned.
The finding that participants in the Unchangeable and Control groups displayed more emotion-focused coping than participants in the Changeable group is consistent with previous research. For example, adults showed high levels of emotion-focused coping in situations they perceived as harmful and unchangeable (13,15) or uncontrollable, such as war-related situations24,25 and disasters.26 Consistent with the adult literature, Band and Weisz (16) found that children in medical situations used high levels of emotion-focused coping responses. Furthermore, Compas and colleagues (8) noted that children and adolescents were likely to generate more emotion-focused coping alternatives for ad-dressing uncontrollable stressors than for addressing controllable stressors.
In summary, the finding that children and adolescents in the Unchangeable and Control groups engaged in greater proportions of emotion-focused coping than the children and adolescents in the Changeable group is consistent with research from several areas.
The findings suggest that information related to changeability and the likelihood of encountering harm in an emergency situation may influence children’s coping. Clinically, these results may provide some insight into why individuals respond differently to extreme stressors. For example, the finding may explain why some soldiers exposed to combat situations developed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while others did not. Consistent with this claim, studies have shown that Vietnam veterans who perceived their combat situations as unchangeable and hopeless were more likely to develop PTSD than veterans who viewed their situations as somewhat changeable and maintained hope. (24,25) These findings may also explain why some children who come from impoverished or war-torn backgrounds develop internalized and externalized disorders while other children remain psychologically healthy.
As predicted, third and eighth graders in the Unchangeable and Control groups displayed lower proportions of problem-focused coping than third and eighth graders in the Changeable group. One possible explanation was the type of information given to participants in each group. For example, based on the information that participants in the Unchangeable and Control groups received, it is likely that they interpreted the situation as one wherein they had few available resources. As a result, they did not attempt to change their situation as much as participants in the Changeable group. However, because of the information they received, participants in the Changeable group might have been encouraged to explore their environment and to change the fire emergency situation. Therefore, they engaged in a greater level of problem-focused coping than the participants in the Unchangeable and Control groups.
These findings are consistent with previous research (16,17,20,21,22,23) and suggest that information related to the changeability and the likelihood of encountering harm in an emergency situation can influence coping. Of clinical importance, these results suggest that researchers may be able to enhance individuals’ acquisition of appropriate coping responses to disaster situations by providing information related to controllability.
As predicted, eighth graders engaged in greater levels of emotion-focused coping than third graders. One possible reason for this result is observational learning. For example, it is likely that the eighth graders acquired emotion-focused coping responses, such as staying calm, by observing others remaining calm during various stressful events. By virtue of third graders’ somewhat limited learning histories relative to older children, they may have had fewer opportunities to observe individuals engage in emotion-focused coping in such situations.
The finding that eighth graders exhibited more emotion-focused coping than third graders across the three groups is consistent with previous research (16,17,20,21,22,23) and indicates that younger children are likely to use fewer emotion-focused coping responses than older children when confronting a fire emergency situation. Consequently, younger children may benefit from being taught to use higher levels of emotion-focused coping responses in fire emergency situations.
It should be noted that although the eighth graders’ proportion of emotion-focused coping was significantly higher than that of third graders, it was not the primary method of coping for eighth graders. Specifically, only 44.2% of the responses displayed by eighth graders were emotion-focused, whereas 55.8% were problem-focused. In comparison, 34.8% of the responses exhibited by third graders were emotion-focused; 65.2% were problem-focused. These findings, as previously stated, may suggest that the fire emergency situation in the absence of information is somewhat more comparable to an academic situation than a medical situation.
As predicted, eighth graders also engage in a greater level of adaptive emotion-focused coping (Seeking Social Support) than third graders. This finding is consistent with previous research. For example, Band and Weisz (16,17) found that older children engage in greater levels of Seeking Social Support than younger children. The implication of this finding is that observational learning likely plays a role not only in assisting older children in gaining a greater range of emotion-focused coping responses but also a more adaptive range of emotion-focused coping (Seeking Social Support) than younger children.
The hypotheses that girls would show a greater level of emotion-focused coping than boys and that girls would show a greater level of adaptive coping than boys were not confirmed. These findings were contrary to experimental hypotheses and may be due to an unequal representation of males and females across groups and grade levels in this study. Forty-six of the third graders were males, and 30 were female. However, 25 of the eighth graders were males, and 45 were females. Because the participants were not randomly assigned to groups based on gender, more males (n = 30) than females (n = 18) were in the Changeable group. In contrast, there were more females (n = 35) than males (n = 17) in the Unchangeable group. However, the number of males (n = 24) and females (n = 22) in the Control group was similar. The uneven representation of gender across the three groups may have represented a potential confound. However, gender was included as a factor in all the analyses. With the exception of primary appraisal analysis-where females reported more threat of being burned-gender had no significant impact on dependent measures.
In summary, information may impact how children and adolescents interpret and cope in disaster situations. Moreover, older children appear to have a greater range of emotion-focused coping responses as well as a more adaptive range of emotion-focused coping (Seeking Social Support) than younger children. Greater observational learning opportunities may account for differences between older and younger children. These findings may assist researchers in determining which coping skills older and younger children possess and what (cognitive-behavioral) strategies will be most appropriate in training them.
Further research is needed to determine how children cope in other stressful situations. The impact of developmental stages and gender on children’s coping should be examined further. Finally, further research is needed to determine how children and adolescents function in fire emergencies in real settings. One method to accomplish this objective is to examine retrospective accounts of children and adolescents who have experienced a fire emergency.
Authors’ note: This research is based on a dissertation completed by Jeff Randall, Ph.D., under the supervision of Russell T. Jones, Ph.D. Jones was supported in part by grant #3R01 MH49147-04-S1 during the final completion of this document. Special thanks to members of our research team, especially Marley J. Anderson, who provided minor editing of the final manuscript, and Bob Frary, for his statistical assistance. For more informaton on this study, contact Russell T. Jones, Virginia Tech Department of Psychology, Stress and Coping Lab, 4102 Derring Hall, Blacksburg, VA 24061-0436.
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RUSSELL T. JONES, Ph.D., is a professor at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia.
JEFF RANDALL, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the Medical College of South Carolina.
The Examination of the Impact of Residential Fire on Children: Preliminary Findings
-BY RUSSELL T. JONES, THOMAS H. OLLENDICK, AND KELLY ROGERS
Although the impact of a variety of technological disasters has been examined in recent years including floods, nuclear waste, terrorism, and transportation accidents, residential fires and their impact on children are yet to be explored.
Hence, within the context of a cross-sectional, longitudinal design, children’s and adolescents’ levels of psychological distress are being assessed. More specifically, using a multimethod assessment strategy, functioning on children’s and adolescents’ level of distress at one-, six-, and 12-month intervals is being systematically carried out.
The determination of family environment and parental functioning on children’s and adolescents’ level of psychological distress following the fire is a primary goal of this investigation. In the context of a stress and coping model, the identification of predictors of children’s and adolescents’ psychological distress following the residential fire is being carried out with the hopes that firefighters and mental health professionals will develop intervention strategies for these families.
Thus far, this investigation has produced a good bit of knowledge into this virtually unstudied area. Given the devastating consequences of fires and burns, ranking sixth among major causes of injury and death among persons newborn to 19 years, a compelling case can be made for its systematic study. Identification of predictors of survivors’ post-disaster functioning might provide important inroads into our understanding of this infrequently studied event. One of the most valuable products of this investigation hopefully will be guidelines for the treatment of survivors of such traumatic events. Although children will serve as the primary target population, parents’ reactions are also being assessed in hopes of determining the impact of their functioning on their offspring. The existing data on several family variables suggest that parental reaction and their own psychological states are related to their children’s adjustment following a major disaster. Therefore, parents’ psychopathology and reaction to the fire are also being explored in the present investigation.
The composition of the sample is a primary feature of this study. In our present sample of approximately 100 families, we have found a fairly good distribution across socioeconomic status as well as race (African American and Caucasian). We have also interviewed several Hispanic families. Many of these individuals reside in rural communities. Children range in age from 5 to 18 years. Within the context of this cross-sectional, longitudinal design, trained graduate clinicians interview the children and adolescents individually. Standardized diagnostic assessment instruments and psychometrically sound self-report measures are being employed. The nature and degree of symptoms are being identified along with those factors that moderate their expression. We are also attempting to account for major types of pre-existing and current psychopathology often found to be correlated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
With the valuable assistance of firefighters and the American Red Cross from the states of Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, we have interviewed some 100 families thus far. We are presently extending the project into the state of Georgia, with a grant from the Georgia Fire Fighter’s Burn Foundation. We have found that the major predictor of distress is resource loss, defined as the loss of both internal and external resources including various personal characteristics (e.g., sense of control, self-efficacy), possessions, social relationships, and energy resources (e.g., money, time, skills). The amount of loss incurred because of the fire typically is associated with subsequent levels of distress.
A brief summary of the findings from five children who have evidenced the highest degree of distress thus far is given below.
The mean age for children in this group was 11.0 years. Two participants were female; three were male. The two boys were African-American; the three girls were Caucasian. All of these children were from families with low socioeconomic status. This finding is supported in literature that suggests the likelihood of being in a residential fire increases as socioeconomic level decreases. One of the primary findings from this small group of children is that they evidenced relatively high levels of distress as measured by the Child Reaction to Traumatic Events Scale (CRTES). The CRTES, a post-disaster outcome instrument that measures intrusion and avoidance symptomology, showed that these children experienced an average of 29.4 symptoms (intrusion = 15.4, avoidance = 14.0) out of a potential range of 0-75 symptoms. Scores from 0-8 signify low distress, 9-18 moderate distress, and 19 and above high distress. As is evident, these children reported very high levels of distress.
Another variable being examined in the present study is life stressors as measured by the Life Events Checklist. It was expected that additional life stressors would increase post-disaster distress levels. It is clear from the data that these individuals reported a relatively high level of additional stressful events. These children reported an average of 10.2 events. These results imply that post-disaster adjustment may be more difficult when there are other ongoing stressors in one’s environment. The most frequently reported symptoms were “moving to a new house” (80%) and “trouble with brother or sister” (80%) Other problems reported included “trouble with classmates” and “failing grades on report cards.” It is not totally clear if these findings are the results of the fire. We hope to address this issue in more detail as we continue to examine our data.
Another interesting finding relates to children’s cognitive processing of the fire. Cognitive processing of the traumatic event was measured using the Appraisal and Coping Questionnaire. Most children indicated that they had no control over the fire.
The majority of these children reported that they tried to ignore their feelings instead of talking them out with family and friends. Our previous research suggests that discussing these types of negative events may lead to better post-disaster adjustment.
In summary, we feel that a residential fire may have a lasting negative impact on some children and their parents. As our sample size increases, we hope to test a number of additional hypotheses and to devise and implement intervention strategies to assist families following a residential fire.
RUSSELL T. JONES is a professor at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia.
THOMAS OLLENDICK is a professor at Virginia Tech University.
KELLY ROGERS is completing a master’s degree at Wake Forest University.