Australia periodically experiences extreme natural disasters. Here in Melbourne I am seeing the effects of the bushfires that are tearing around Victoria. It is a very scary time for us as adults so imagine what it is like for our children!
In my practice, I have had many phone calls and seen clients in the last few days who are worried about their children's responses to these disasters. These are children who do not know anyone involved in these crises but are clearly exposed to the non-stop news coverage on all forms of media, and to the conversations of those around them. While I have not personally spoken yet to any children who were caught in the fire-ravaged areas (only adults so far), it is entirely possible in the days, weeks and months to come that I will given my proximity to these areas.
The Australian Psychological Society (APS) put out a Media Release reminding the community that most people recover from traumas without the need for professional counselling, however there are some who will require some intervention. This is true for children too!
To help children who are in these dangerous situations, here are some quick tips to help them (and you!) to cope better with the danger period:
- Remember, you are their role model. If you can remain as calm and in control as is possible, they are less likely to panic and become too distressed
- Be clear and simple - No matter how old they are, they know that something really awful is going on. Tell them the things that are going right (eg. the firefighters are on their way to help us, we are going to the car to drive to the nearest town before the flood water gets too high, etc.).
- Keep them "in the loop". Tell the child what is happening (in as positive terms as possible but keeping it real). Update them on the situation - even if they are not saying anything, they need to know what is happening and what they can do to help.
- If they are crying or distressed, do not tell them to stop. Validate their feelings (eg. I know you are feeling really scared. I am feeling scared too, but I know that if we can...(whatever action is required) ... then we will keep safe)
- Give them something useful to do. This is a great distraction and can also help in a moment of crisis. Depending on the age of the child, it might be to listen for the sirens, grab the keys, or watch at the window. They become occupied with the task at hand rather than worrying about something that they do not understand.
- Reassure them. Let them know what you are doing to help the situation, give them a hug, hold them tight, continue talking to them - they need to hear your voice.
After the event:
- Let them talk (but do not force them to). If they are not able to verbalise how they feel, then you can tell them how you feel. Children often find it difficult to verbalise their thoughts and feelings (particularly when they are asked), so if there are opportunities for them to speak to other children in the same situation, they may be more able to express their experiences
- Help them to use words to describe how it feels - "you are screaming because you are frightened". Model some ‘feeling words' for them to help them express their emotions in words rather than in actions (eg. tantrums, etc.).
- Praise them for their actions - children are incredibly resilient and strong when it comes to doing whatever is required in a crisis situation. Even if they fell apart at different times, there are undoubtedly things that they did well (eg. came when Daddy called, grabbed the baby's bottle for Mummy, stayed exactly where they were told to until their parent came back, etc.).
- Have a media "black-out" - once the initial crisis has passed, turn off your radio or television for varying periods of time to prevent your child (and yourself) from being continuously overwhelmed. Sing some songs, play some games, or tidy up. We need to find time for our bodies to recover from the high adrenaline levels that we produced to help us survive the danger period.
- Remember to nourish yourselves! When we have prolonged levels of adrenaline in our systems, our digestive (and other) systems shut down, so we often do not have the feelings of hunger and thirst. This does NOT mean that we do not need them, and in fact we need it more than ever! Have something to eat and drink regularly - and make sure that you get your children to as well!
In the following days, weeks and months, if the child (or yourself!) still seem to have ongoing problems after this event (eg. sleep difficulties, guilt, change in eating habits, lack of motivation, etc.), take a visit to your doctor and you may be given a referral to see a psychologist who can help you cope with the after-effects of a trauma.
And as I mentioned earlier, it is not just those who are involved directly in these situations who are affected, it is also those of us who are seeing and hearing about it in the media. Many people are feeling helpless because they do not know what they can do to assist. Some feel bad that their issues are so insignificant. I have been telling people that there are many volunteers at the coal-face of these disasters who are doing an incredible job. However, we have not yet seen the worst of this yet. It will be the aftermath of these events that will have the greatest impact on the community, and that is when we will all have the opportunity to help. We can do that by speaking to the people that we meet who have either been directly or indirectly affected. We can offer donations of time or money. We can give blood. We can offer our business services. We can forgive or postpone debts for those people who may owe money to us. We can help the helpers by making meals for them and their families as well as the victims. In my case, I have spoken on 3AW radio on Monday and have offered my services for the next few weeks if listeners need to talk to a professional. As a psychologist, I also have the privilege of being able to offer my services directly to those who need it by putting forward my name with the APS for their disaster register.
I think it is important for me to say how absolutely proud I am to be an Australian now more than ever. Crises such as these remind us of how truly good and selfless people are. News stories are often filled with horror and tragedy or highlight the sad/low side of life. The reason for this is because these negative occurrences are RARER than the positive events which occur every second of every day (eg. "a man drove past and offered his neighbour a lift home from the supermarket because she looked flustered") - these are not newsworthy headlines because they are so common. We need to take opportunities such as these to remind us all of the good in the world, and to remind ourselves that we are a part of that "goodness".
I hope that you and your family are safe and well, and that if you are affected by any of the current disasters, that you feel well supported and can look positively towards your future soon. Keep talking to your friends and loved ones, and if you or your children are having difficulty dealing with the enormity of the events, please seek assistance from your doctor.