Disaster Relief: Helping children during (and after) community traumatic events

An article for parents and caregivers by Colby Pearce, Clinical Psychologist, Secure Start®.

Traumatic events include any adverse event that challenges, or overwhelms, a child’s normal feelings of safety and everyday coping capacity. Traumatic events often occur suddenly and without warning.

Exposure to traumatic events is relatively common. Australian and international figures suggest two-thirds of children will experience at-least one traumatic event during childhood. Traumatic events can be experienced directly, such as being present during the traumatic event, or indirectly, such as through exposure to images and stories (and the reactions of others) about the traumatic event.

Exposure to traumatic events impacts individual children differently, but there are some common impacts. Exposure to traumatic events can impact how children think and feel. In turn, this can impact the way they behave.

Children who have or are experiencing a traumatic event, such as the current bushfire emergency in Australia, are more prone than usual to negative thinking about:

Themselves:
Others:
Their World:

I am helpless

They will not be there for me when I need them

Bad things happen
I am unsafe  They do not understand meMy world is unsafe
I am inadequateThey do not love me 

This kind of negative thinking increases their proneness to anxiety. Common effects of anxiety include:

Physical:
Psychological:

Sleep disturbance (wakefulness/nightmares)

Unsettled behaviour

Feeling unwell (headaches; tummy pains)

Reduced exploration or clinginess

Poor coordination (clumsy)  

‘Big’ emotional displays

Bladder and bowel disturbance

Excessive worrying  
 
Regression to ‘younger’ emotions and behaviours

Reducing children’s anxiety and helping them to cope with traumatic events involves providing extra attention to the CARE you provide, where CARE involves enriching the children’s experience of:

  • Consistency
  • Accessibility
  • Responsiveness
  • Emotional-Connectedness (Pearce, 2016)

Consistency:

Children need consistency. Consistency calms. Consistency supports experiences of order and predictability that buffer children against the experience of unpredictability and uncertainty that occurs during traumatic events. Consistency supports experiences of normality.

Recommendation: As far as possible, maintain normal routines, including in relation to mealtimes, bedtime, and daily activities.

Accessibility:

Traumatic events challenge children’s normal coping capacity and increase their need to experience caring adults as accessible to them. Parental accessibility is reassuring during times of duress. Parental accessibility is calming. Children are most reassured about parental accessibility when we attend to them whether proactively (i.e.  whether they are crying or quiet).

Recommendation: Check in with your child or children regularly throughout the day, without them having to do anything to get your attention. (Note: Only begin what you can keep up for at-least a week or two).

Responsiveness:

Traumatic events increase children’s need to experience that caring adults understand them and their needs and are here to help. Showing understanding of the child’s experience through our words and actions reassures the child that caring adults can be depended upon in difficult times, that they are deserving of care, and that they are safe.

Recommendation: Instead of asking children what they are thinking or how they are feeling, say what you think is the answer to the question. Say what you see. Similarly, if you can anticipate a need or reasonable request that a child in your care might express to you, address the need/request before the child asks or does anything else to satisfy the need/request. Be proactive!

Emotional Connectedness

Traumatic events upset children and adults alike. It is natural to be upset by traumatic events. Children need to know that their feelings are natural. Equally, they also need to be able to regulate to calm and even to happiness. They may need your help to do so.

Recommendation: Allow yourself to show/express your own distress/concern/worry about the traumatic event to the child, through briefly and in a measured way. A connection will be made with the child and their emotions. Return to calm. The child should follow.  

A Final Word

Children may be prone to exaggerating the magnitude and impact of the traumatic event. This may be especially true of traumatic events they hear about but are not directly involved in. In such instances it may be important to ensure that they have accurate/factual information, that is tailored to their age and maturity. Provide information clearly and concisely. Observe and acknowledge the child’s reaction in your words and expressions. Your words and actions should be reassuring.

Children do recover from traumatic events. Depending on the event, this can be within a few days. If they continue to show signs of anxiety for more than a week or two, they may benefit from some extra help from a mental health or counselling professional. In such circumstances, consult your General Medical Practitioner (GP) about mental health and counselling services in your area.  

Reference

Pearce, C. (2016). A Short Introduction to Attachment and Attachment Disorder (Second Edition). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

About colbypearce

I am a Clinical Psychologist and author who assists children and familes overcome adversity and experience strong and secure attachment relationships.
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