Here’s a scenario: your child wakes at night distressed about something terrible that’s happened in the world. These days it could be anything from a terrorist attack or plane crash, to a natural disaster, such as bushfire or flood. What do you say to them? While none of us will have all the answers for our children in these situations, these tips will help you to help them deal with disasters.
Are you worried that talking about a dreadful event will make children more fearful? Actually, the opposite is true. Children are usually more frightened by whispers than by direct discussion. Before talking to your child, establish what they already know, and don’t know about the incident. Avoid elaborate details and stick to the facts using simple, plain language.
This is the toughest part: how honest do you get? Children may ask the same questions repeatedly which can compel parents to answer in more detail. Parents of younger children will mostly ‘fib’ and say, for example, that people were injured rather than lives lost. With older children, such as those 10 and over, it is better to be direct without going into too much detail. There is a risk of them hearing the truth elsewhere, leading to confusion and loss of parental trust.
t’s not advisable to expose younger kids to TV, Internet, radio or print versions of News while the event is still featuring in the news cycle, especially if they are alone and images can be taken out of context. Remember to ask babysitters or nannies to be mindful of News exposure with younger children, and be sure to let them know if older kids are feeling shaken up by an event. However, by early teen years, watching the News with kids and discussing the incident together will help give them the full story for them to digest and process.
Comfort your child with the fact that disasters, whether an earthquake or a plane crash, are extremely rare. Reassure them if something did happen, you’ll be there to look after them, as will special people who are trained to help, such as police, paramedics, firefighters and the SES.
Be prepared to answer children’s questions about what they have seen or heard. Even bring it up yourself if you know they are going to hear about it anyway. Not all children will say if they are upset, so keep an eye out for any signs they are exhibiting anxiety, such as nightmares, suddenly wanting to co-sleep or fear of going outside.
Let children speak freely about what scares or confuses them. The best way to help distressed children, including those directly affected by a disaster, is to help them work through their fears. An effective way to do this for kids of all ages is through drawing, a method frequently used by child psychologists. Have them sketch or paint the scenario that is making them upset and ask how the person in the picture feels. Ask them to draw what they are afraid of and tell you about it as they draw the picture. Role play can also help them express their fears, so have the child act out what it is they are most afraid of.
Children may have a number of responses to a disaster – sadness, fear, confusion or anxiety, or a combination of these. Often parents unwittingly dismiss their children’s feelings when they are trying to comfort them, such as “don’t worry about it; there’s nothing to be scared of.” Instead, acknowledge their feelings and empathise with them; it’s very important to validate what they are going through.
In the cases of a natural disaster close to home, such as a bushfire, the two major securities in a child’s life will be threatened: the security of their physical environment and the security of their parents. To help assuage their fears, come up with a family safety plan, such as learning mum’s and dad’s mobile numbers, work out exits in your home, some simple first aid tips and how to make an emergency call. Go through your family safety plan every few months to remind them.