Supporting children in times of crisis
After years of working as a child protection in emergencies professional for international organisations I’ve learned that stress among children can crop up in unexpected, and at times scary, ways. A key message families need to hear during emergencies is that in most cases this stress is a normal reaction to abnormal events.
What could this stress look like?
Australia has been weathering more than its fair share of emergencies of late and children will be feeling it just as adults are. Cumulative stress may be taking its toll and some children will be exhibiting behaviour that can become an additional worry for parents. During emergencies, children may:
- Become withdrawn and quiet
- Cry more often
- Become angry more easily
- Regress (display behaviour that is associated with a younger child like bed wetting, tantrums, reduction in independence)
- Lose focus, find it difficult to pay attention
- Become increasingly clingy
- Become obviously worried
- Have disrupted sleep and nightmares.
What can you do?
These are normal responses to an abnormal situation. In most cases, children will recover when given a supportive and understanding environment. Families can do this by maintaining contact with loved ones, ensuring routines are maintained, engaging in relaxing activities and being given age appropriate information. It is also important children see their special adults coping well with their own stress.
This might feel particularly hard when our routines are being disrupted by social distancing and our community supports are dwindling, but it is still possible. Here are a few ideas:
- Model healthy ways of dealing with stress and get your kids involved; like taking a walk, being outside, cooking together.
- If activities such as sports or music lessons are being cancelled, maintain that time to practice the instrument, or play a sports game in your backyard.
- Create new ways of having fun together – movie nights, building forts and backyard camping can all bring joy to a time of stress.
- If family celebrations are being cancelled, try to mark the event together at home – we’ll be having a trans-Tasman Easter lunch over skype with the grandparents!
- Respond to worries, outbursts and tears with compassion and patience, let children know these feelings are understandable and that they are not alone.
- Make sure children know they are safe and provide children with information from trusted sources that is appropriate for their developmental age. (Check out Dr Michelle Dickinson or Operation Ouch).
- Empower children to exert some control in appropriate areas – they could create a family timetable for activities in times when social activities are curtailed, or hygiene posters for the bathroom. Older children may be able to cook healthy meals to freeze, or be involved in putting together care packages for more vulnerable family and community members.
- Give your children extra cuddles!
Most children will feel better over the coming weeks or months with this support from their loved ones. In order for you to do this, it is very important parents and carers to get support for themselves as well, so don’t forget your own self-care practices.
When do I seek help?
If your child does not seem to be recovering or they begin to feel worse, seek help. Call your Nurse on Call (1300 60 60 24 for the ACT), let your child know they can speak to a counsellor at Kids Helpline (1300 60 60 24) , speak to other parents you trust or call your GP.
Most importantly, trust that most children will recover from disasters such as pandemics, fires and floods, when given love, support, a sense of security and time.
Amalia Fawcett is a child rights specialist and the Wellbeing Hub Manager at CS#1. This advice is in line with the Interagency Standing Committee Guidelines on Mental Health and Psycho-social Support in Emergency Settings.