Australia regularly experiences natural disasters such as cyclones, floods and bushfires, as well as increasing community violence or acts of terrorism. These distressing events can be traumatic for everyone in the community, either directly or indirectly. Sometimes, as in the case of natural disasters, there can be some preparation, both physical and psychological. Being psychologically prepared can assist in reducing the impact of an incident.
Recovering from a traumatic event
For children who experience a critical incident, the trauma can change how they make sense of their world and where they fit in.
Trauma can have both short-term and long-term effects. Some children will seem to be recovering well, but may have a delayed response weeks or even months later. Often the signs of this may be mostly behavioural, which sometimes go unnoticed as being related to the past experience.
Parents and educators need to make children feel safe so they have the opportunity to make sense of what happened. Many children may not be able to understand how they are feeling or behaving. They need lots of support and reassurance from parents and educators to help them cope with what has happened.
Educators and parents need to observe children to notice any behavioural changes: some children may find it more difficult to follow directions, communicate adequately or manage their emotions and relationships. Educators and parents working in partnership can support children to recover.
Talk to children about what happened
There is a mistaken belief that young children are not affected by trauma and do not notice or even remember traumatic events. Suggestions that a child is too young to be affected, or adults deciding not to talk about the incident with the child, will not support recovery from the trauma.
If a child starts to talk about the incident, follow their lead and have a conversation. Answer their questions honestly, using language they can understand. Don’t give more information than is necessary—just basic facts. When they are ready for more information, they will ask.
If adults give vague answers, don’t respond, or deliberately change the subject, children may make up their own version of events. Sometimes these stories will create more anxiety for the child than the reality of what actually occurred.
Responding to children
‘Tuning in’ to children will make them feel connected and support their sense of wellbeing.
Children may repeatedly retell their story of the incident and it is important to listen to them calmly. They may recreate it through play, re-enacting what happened and expressing their feelings as they play.
Help children identify their feelings and name them. Encourage children to express these through creative means such as drawing, painting, clay or playdough. Have books about feelings available to them.
Create a quiet space for children for when they feel overwhelmed and provide comforting toys.
Provide consistent and predictable routines
Children who have suffered trauma are very sensitive to changes. Maintaining familiar routines with familiar people can reduce stress and help children feel safe. Warning children about change in advance can lessen their anxieties and fear.
For more information about recognising and responding to trauma in children, visit Be You and join today.
- Be You ‘Responding together’ modules: beyou.edu.au/learn/responding-together
- Be You ‘Family partnerships’ modules: beyou.edu.au/learn/family-partnerships
- Fact sheets available: www.psychology.org.au/for-the-public/Psychology-topics/Disasters
- What everyone should know about trauma
- Helping young children cope with natural disasters by June Slee, Every Child Vol 19, 2013
- Tumultuous times: Natural disasters, media and children’s fears by Toni Deer Every Child, Vol 18, 2012
- The Child development and trauma guide, produced by the South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault and Family Violence, can be found at www.secasa.com.au/pages/child-development-and-trauma-guide, and includes ‘Possible indicators of trauma’, ‘Trauma impact’ and ‘Support following trauma’ for ages birth to 12 months; 12 months to 3 years; 3 to 5 and 5 to 7 years.
Helping children with difficult things
By Pam Linke
This Research in Practice Series booklet is about understanding stress in babies and young children; recognising the signs of stress in infancy and early childhood; and responding in ways that support children’s developing sense of security, agency and confidence.