An increase in natural disasters and a growing media coverage of catastrophic world events can be very confronting for children, making it necessary for parents to help them cope with any related fears that might arise as a consequence.
Natural disasters, such as bushfires, floods and severe storms, can have a strong impact on families, especially children. Indirect exposure to these events through media coverage or through them overhearing conversations, might have more of an effect on children than we realise.
The good news is, most children who are impacted by such natural disasters – whether directly or indirectly – are able to recover with the support of important adults in their life.
Children are active participants in their world. Even though they might not fully understand the meaning of what they see and hear, they are finely tuned to the emotions and feelings of the important people in their lives.
Very young children do not have the words to talk about their feelings or what they have seen, so they may act them out. As a result, you may see changes in their behaviour, sleep and eating patterns. However, not all these changes are due to exposure to natural events – some of them may be a result of normal development and life events.
Some of the changes you might observe in your child include:
- Returning to earlier behaviour eg. they may suck their thumbs again or wet their beds.
- More fearful of strangers, darkness or monsters.
- More clingy with the important adults in their lives and may become very anxious about being separated from you.
- Becoming upset easily and more difficult to comfort.
- They may express their trauma repeatedly through play or drawings.
- They might become withdrawn or act out with disruptive or aggressive behaviour eg. might bite or hit more.
- They may become hyperactive.
- They may react negatively to changes in routines and environments.
- May complain of unexplained aches and pains.
- Sleep patterns may change; eg. they may seem very restless in their sleep or have difficulty falling and staying asleep.
- Eating patterns may change: eg. they may refuse to eat certain foods and want to drink from a bottle again.
If the changes in behaviour continue for longer than a few weeks, or suddenly appear much later, you may need to seek professional help from your local GP, child health nurse, parent helpline, child psychologist or counsellor.
What can you as parents, or significant adults, do? Whatever you say or do, be guided by your knowledge of your child’s temperament and age.
- Look after your own physical and mental health. Seek the support of families, friends and professionals if required.
- Discuss and agree with your partner on the best way to support your child
- It is alright for your child to see that you are sad or teary. However try not to show intense emotions such as uncontrollable sobbing or screaming, as this is scary for children. It is also a good idea for you to label or name your own feelings, such as being sad.
- Pay close attention to your child’s feelings. Let him know you understand by naming his/her feelings: “I know you are ‘scared,’ ‘sad,’ or ‘angry.’” Ignoring feelings does not make them go away.
- Communicate in a calm and clear manner as children absorb your emotions along with your words.
- Give your child lots of cuddles, verbal support and your full attention. They need that extra loving devotion to help them feel safe and secure when things are so uncertain.
- Reassure your child that you will and can look after them and that you love them.
- Use language that your child understands and give basic facts as appropriate to their age and temperament.
- If your child wants to talk repeatedly about the disaster, listen calmly.
- Provide opportunities for your child to express their feelings through play or drawings, and possible re-enactment using dress-up clothes – this is how your child tries to make sense of what has happened.
- Maintain, where possible, predictable and consistent routines. Tell your child about what is happening next and details of what to expect. Routines make children feel safe. It can be very comforting for them to sing the same goodnight songs or play the same games.
- Spend time together doing activities they enjoy. Laughter is a great stress reliever!
- You may need to spend extra time with them prior to bedtime.
- Some children might prefer to share a bedroom until they can return to their own without fear.
- Answer your child’s questions according to their level of understanding: “Yes, a bad thing happened but we are keeping you safe.”
- Protect your child from seeing and hearing troubling media coverage. Turn off the TV, iPad and radios.
- Don’t talk about scary events around your child. Young children understand more than we can know.
If you feel you need additional support and information, contact the Ngala Helpline on 08 9368 9368 or 1800 111 546 for country callers, or email email@example.com. Other sources of information include your GP, child health nurse, child and adolescent health service in your health area, or Lifeline on 13 11 14.