Children and disasters

Children and disasters

21 January 2011

published by

Australia –Bushfires, floods, natural disasters are hard enough for adults to deal with but how do little children cope? Dr Susie Burke is the Australian Psychologists Society’s Senior Psychologist for Disaster Response and she believes parents need to consider how children can be included in planning and recovering from natural disasters like the recent floods.

It is impossible for most of us to imagine what it would be like to have your home or business destroyed by a natural disaster. The pressures of re-building or re-locating combined with the financial and emotional loss would be very hard to deal with as an adult but how do children cope with such events?

Psychologists tell us natural disasters are high on the list of our children’s greatest fears. Even if they are not directly involved, disasters can have a significant impact on young children and it is important that as adults we take into consideration how our behaviour and reactions can affect them.

Dr Susie Burke is the Australian Psychological Society’s Senior Psychologist working in Disaster Response. She believes that parents have a responsibility to help children manage their fear of natural disasters whether we have been directly involved or not. She says children have a capacity to absorb and worry about stories on the news and children often overhear adult conversations about disasters that can affect them very significantly. She cites an example of children in a Sydney childcare centre drawing dramatic pictures of the Queensland floods even though they were not directly affected by the floods themselves.

Her advice is if your family is directly affected by a disaster to try and keep to family routines and familiar habits and activities. Try and involve your children in the process and give them useful jobs to do so they feel they are playing a part in the recovery. She recommends that even if you are at an evacuation centre or staying away from home try and keep family rituals the same, eat dinner as a family, tell the same stories at bedtime.

Try not to talk too dramatically in front of the children. If you can wait until little ones are in bed before you de-brief with other adults. Little ears are often listening to conversations they can’t be expected to understand.

As much as possible limit media coverage of ongoing disasters. If possible wear headphones so you can hear the reports without your children listening or limit news bulletins to one every few hours. Blanket news coverage of the same stories or footage repeated appears to small children as more and more devastation, they’re not able to distinguish between video replays and a new disaster occurring.

Watch for signs that your child might be more affected by the disaster than you thought, concerns might turn up as odd or slightly regressive behaviour (children acting a bit younger than they are), wetting the bed, nightmares and often drawing pictures or acting out disaster scenarios in their play. It’s worth keeping an eye out for these behaviours even if your family isn’t directly affected by the floods as many children have seen the devastation or heard adults talking about it.

If you are concerned there are some places you can go for help and these are discussed by Dr Burke in the podcast:

Dr Susie Burke is from the Australian Psychological Society theirwebsite has a page of information about how to help children cope with disaster.
The Red Cross has aguide for parents about how to talk to children about disasters.
The Red Cross Children’s Activities page

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