Helping Children Cope in a Crisis

When flood, fire or other natural disasters hit our communities, it can take a while to realise the full horror of the destruction and devastation for families, communities and livelihoods.

It can also be a long time before normal lives can be resumed and this process will be particularly distressing for children, who so need to feel safe and rely very much on routine and cues from the adults around them in order to do so.

The adults in this disaster zone have an enormous task ahead and will likely be focused on the very practical details of cleaning up and rebuilding their homes and businesses. This is on top of managing their own grief, trauma and exhaustion.

My thoughts at these times are often very much centred on the precious children who have been caught up in the disaster.

Trauma and chronic distress affects children deeply and many of the children affected face enormous stress at losing people or pets they loved, seeing their homes, schools and favourite parks and playgrounds destroyed – even just seeing this happen to others via the TV is enough to stress a child.

A study on the mental health of children who survive hurricane disasters, conducted by the University of Miami and published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, indicated that children can demonstrate signs of post-traumatic stress almost two years after a disaster event.

However, there are some things parents and carers can do to really help ease their distress now and hopefully avoid ongoing trauma.

Firstly, we have to remember children hear way more than we adults think so we need to be careful of what we say near them.

During times of natural disaster or other crises, I would avoid leaving the TV on with its endless images of the destruction. We know that children under four can have difficulty with reality – and the same scene can appear to be a new scene and children get really frightened by that.

Radio is a much better medium for them to be exposed to when a disaster is happening (but still be ready to switch it off if things get too graphic). By all means encourage them to care and to send a donation – but be mindful of the power of the visual image on young children.

For those in the midst of it, keep reassuring your children that things will get better.

Tell your children they are safe because they are with you. Indeed, repeatedly saying affirmative things like “we will get through this, this will pass, together we can help each other beat this,” even humming or singing will help both adults and children to feel hopeful and optimistic.

To soothe children we need to keep safe touch happening holding them, holding their hands, rubbing their heads and giving lots of gentle kisses will really help.

Keep their soothing comforters like special blankets and soft toys close and also be mindful of the power of pets in a trauma. When a child soothes a beloved toy or pet they are soothing themselves. If they have lost their special soft toy, get a replacement as soon as possible.

It is also a great time for Dads in particular to practice their ridiculousness because laughter is a very powerful mood changer, brain chemical changer and it really bonds people together.

Top Tips for Soothing Children

  1. Take the distress seriously
  2. Meet the child’s feelings with the right voice and energy – validate their feelings
  3. Be calm and clear with boundaries
  4. Use physical soothing – if you can’t, because you are angry or upset, find someone else
  5. Use existing habits and rituals – hand games, nursery rhymes, songs and bedtime rituals
  6. Magic tapping – emotional freedom techniques help diffuse emotions – the release points on the fingers points are on the side of the finger nails, closest to the thumb.
  7. Key ways of triggering oxytocin
    – Touch and massage-especially tickle point across the top of the shoulders
    – Sucking
    – Warmth – approx 21°C
    – Low soothing sounds
    – Novelty, laughter
    – Avoid overstimulation.

Another thing that helps children process and come to terms with trauma like is for them to be able to help in some way.

They can be encouraged to give hugs, get drinks and even help with clean up.

Ask children to send rainbows of love and kindness from their heart to people and children who are hurting.

These small things can make a huge difference to children and it helps to mobilise much of their inner distress, as does play. I know I have often seen play corners and play volunteers in evacuation centres on the news at such times, and this is wonderful.

It may seem like kids are just playing to prevent boredom, however this is how children explore their physical world and process their emotional world, especially when there is significant change and social dislocation.

Having massive social change is often like a death to a child. It is normal for children to exhibit distressed behaviours – and meeting their needs for reassurance can be difficult to meet when parents are also struggling with the stress of losing homes and businesses, and grieving lives lost.

This is where family and friends can be of enormous help but be careful of sending children interstate while parents clean up as this can cause more distress than them being around.

Their primary carers are always who children want to be near. Sometimes they need to keep an eye on their parents and want to protect them. Also having their children around can keep parents motivated in their rebuilding efforts because they will be constantly be reminded to be grateful for the most precious gift that they still have – life.

For those children who have lost a loved one, please let them know what happened and allow them to share the family’s grief. Coping with grief is a whole other process, so I would urge anyone who knows children affected by death in this disaster to read further on coping with death and dying at Maggie’s common concerns page on death and loss.

Free audio downloads

Maggie has two free audio downloads for soothing children. Please check out Sleepytime and Safe’N Sound here.