What is trauma?
In Australia, parts of the country sometimes experience storms, floods, fires, cyclones or long droughts. These weather events don’t happen very often, but when they do they can be really frightening - homes and schools might get damaged, friends or family could get hurt, or die, and the places your child loves to go might be affected too; their sporting ground, scout hall, skate park or local shop might be ruined, or they may have lost some of their favourite toys or things. Maybe all, some or none of these things happened to your child. A natural disaster can affect anyone, no matter how you were involved, or what you saw.
Most people will feel different after something “traumatic” happens. Trauma is like an emotional reaction you might have after an event, like a natural disaster, threatens your life or safety, or those of the people around you. Most times they happen without much warning, and can be really hard to understand.
How will I know if my child is experiencing traumatic stress?
Parents are the best reporters of what their kids are doing – how they are behaving (what you see); and children are the best reporters of what they are thinking and feeling (what’s going on in their mind). As children get older, they often talk less to their parents and more to their friends, or sometimes (when things are not going well), to no one at all.
It is common for parents not to realise their child is experiencing traumatic stress after an event like a natural disaster. Your child(ren) may be attending school, hanging out with their friends and acting pretty “normal”, most kids don’t want to cause their parents worry, so won’t talk to them about their own worries.
The best way to know if your child is experiencing any form of traumatic stress is to ask them, speak to their school and teachers, even their friends may have noticed them acting differently.
Common reactions and behaviours
Grief and loss
It is common for people who have survived a natural disaster to feel a sense of grief and loss. There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ feelings, and they can vary from person to person.
Young people who may have lost people, pets, homes or possessions in the natural disaster may have trouble explaining their feelings, they may seem distant, or feel they cannot grieve openly, particularly if others seem to have lost more.
Confusion, guilt and shame
Trying to understand a natural disaster can be confusing for young people:
- it can make them feel angry and frightened over time
- people who have survived a disaster can feel guilty they survived when others didn’t
- younger children often feel like part of what happened was their fault
- young people feel ashamed of how they are feeling, can withdraw from people and hide their feelings
Fear, anxiety and insecurity
Sometimes people feel anxious, frightened and unsafe for weeks or months after the disaster. It is common for people to see the world as a more frightening place, even if they are physically safe. This is a normal reaction to a frightening event, although it adds to the young person's distress.
Reactions to trauma
Young people ‘act out’ when they are grieving or traumatised. It may be that they don’t understand what is happening, don’t have the language to communicate what is going on for them, or simply don’t want to burden anyone with their internal worries (some young people may also fear they are going crazy.)
Reactions can vary for each person, but young people can:
- become aggressive or irritable
- have problems at school (that weren’t there before the disaster)
- alternatively become clingy and withdrawn and find it hard to separate from family members
- develop physical complaints like stomach aches, headaches, nausea in response to their distress
- engage in risk taking and harmful behaviours: drug and alcohol misuse, developing eating disorders as a response to their emotions
Reactions of parents/families
Most people of all ages recover well from the emotional effects of a natural disaster. Families, especially parents, have an important role in the healing process. But parents and families have their own problems to cope with, and you may find yourself juggling your own reactions to the disaster with your responsibilities for your child. Reactions can include:
- guilt about not being able to shield your child from the effects of the disaster
- fear and anxiety about the continuing safety of your child
- negativity about the world in general, which you may not be able to conceal from your child
- impatience and frustration about your child making a slow recovery
How to help your child
Source - Headspace: Supporting your child after a natural disaster
- maintain some regular activities and encourage your child to eat and sleep well
- explain what will happen today and the next day, as best you can, and write down a plan to remind them
- provide as much security as possible, by being around, giving your child time to talk, and by developing some comforting routines
- involve your child in choosing new belongings, and perhaps remember old toys and other treasured possessions with a ‘goodbye ceremony’
- tell your child about what is being done to help the whole community
- when possible, reassure them that their friends and other family members are safe, and contact them if you can
Normalise but don’t minimise
- it can be a relief for young people to know that their feelings are normal, but be careful to acknowledge and respect their emotions
- do not dismiss or minimise the intensity and importance of their reactions
Explain gently, create a shared story
- when your child is calm and feeling safe you can talk about how natural disasters are random and unpredictable
- correct any confused explanations of the disaster your child may have.
- give your child the chance to talk about what they miss and what they have lost, bt do not push them to talk
- acknowledge that what has happened is not ‘fair’
- if you have lost loved ones, tell them enough details so there are no ‘secrets’, without causing extra distress
- try not to discuss worrying ‘adult’ issues about the disaster in front of young children
Use your child’s strengths and likes
- talk about the strengths you know your child has, and how they can use them. For example, they might like to draw or tell stories, so let them do this to explain what has happened and how they are feeling
- it is quite okay to talk about how the disaster has affected you, and how you are trying to get life back on track
- make time to be with your child, to do normal things, and to have some quiet time with them. Try to be available emotionally, although this can sometimes be hard when you, too, have a lot to cope with
- If you seem anxious, it can reinforce their view that the world is unsafe
- At the same time, allow your child some space, and some time to themselves
Encourage coping skills
- encourage your child to step back from their problems or negative feelings and think of ways to reduce their distress
- help them work out ways to solve problems, and find ways to relax and reduce their anxiety
Be a role model
- look after yourself and be true to how you feel
- try to keep your life as structured as possible
- if you can, put off big decisions until you feel more stable
- get enough rest and talk with friends, family and health professionals if you’re feeling overwhelmed
- don’t forget caregivers need care too
Keep in contact with teachers and other carers
- Discuss what your child is experiencing, and what you are going to do to help, to ensure a consistent response (see section “stuff teachers may be interested in")
When to get help
You should think about getting help if your child is having difficulties more than six weeks after the disaster, or is not functioning well in normal activities. Services such as your local Doctor, Community Health Centre, School Counsellor or local Child and Youth Mental Health Service can provide advice and assistance.
Seek immediate help if you think your child is at risk, for example of self-harm. Call your local hospital, emergency services, Lifeline (13 11 14) or Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800).