A guide for health and social service workers: Supporting children’s mental health immediately following a disaster

Emerging Minds, Australia, 2018

Resource Summary

Key points

  • Infants, children and adults are all vulnerable to trauma.
  • Healthy parents and a stable routine are the main things infants and children need to be okay after a traumatic event.
  • There are many different responses to a disaster, and they will be most intense in the first few weeks after a traumatic event.
  • Infants and children may experience distress even if they did not experience the event personally.
  • Parents will also be dealing with their own grief and loss, and may need increased support to provide stability and routine for their children.
  • All infants and children need stability and support in this time.

These guidelines assist practitioners to help families immediately following a natural disaster.

Children of all ages can be profoundly affected by natural disasters such as bushfires, floods, cyclones and severe storms. These events can produce trauma, grief, destruction of children’s sense of safety and security, and loss of their home, school or social networks.

When disasters occur, parents need guidance, information and support for their own needs so they can reassure and care for their children as effectively as possible.

To help with this support for families, practitioners themselves need to be professionally prepared to discuss the issue of disasters with their client families. They need to recognise the ways that disasters can affect the psychological health of children and families, particularly immediately after a disaster occurs.

Practitioners are in a unique position to help monitor their clients over time and see how they are doing. Practitioners can play a pivotal role in helping a community recover after a disaster.

Children’s reactions immediately after a disaster

The immediate aftermath of a disaster can be devastating for all members of the community.

Infants and children are often overwhelmed and their immediate reaction may be to freeze, physically and/or emotionally, or scream and cry inconsolably. They will be confused and struggle to make sense of what is happening. They are likely to be deeply afraid and highly anxious, looking for a secure figure and constant assurance.

They may experience intense physical and psychological reactions such as:

  • nausea
  • heart palpitations
  • loss of bowel and bladder control
  • increased babbling and hyperarousal
  • increased fearfulness about any threat
  • becoming clingy and fearing separation
  • sleep difficulties
  • general bodily complaints e.g. stomach pains, headaches
  • difficulties concentrating at school
  • becoming withdrawn, sad, and in some cases, depressed
  • displaying aggression.

Children’s reactions after a disaster can differ, depending on:

  • age (younger children may be more vulnerable)
  • specific experiences of the disaster, which may have included:
    • death of parents or family members
    • loss of significant others
    • damage/destruction of home, neighbourhood, school or community
    • loss of loved pets and possessions.
  • extent of the ongoing disruptions they experience after the disaster (e.g. not being able to go home, return to school and usual life-routines, over-exposure to traumatic TV images of the disaster).

What infants and children need immediately after a disaster

To mitigate the impact of the disaster, infants and children need the familiarity of their parents and other caregivers, and to be provided with protection, safety and comfort as soon as possible to help them feel soothed and safe. Infant and children’s basic health needs including shelter, clean water, warmth, healthy food and rest need to be provided as soon as possible.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster encourage parents or caregivers to:

  • Remove the child and themselves as much as possible from the sight, sounds, smells and circumstances of the incident. Look for a quiet and settled place with other people around.
  • Talk to their child and reassure them that they are safe (while being as honest as possible).
  • Try to avoid exposure to distressed people, other people’s conversations about their experience and media reporting of the incident.
  • Comfort their child with the normal comforting actions the child is used to such as singing lullaby’s, cuddling, holding, stroking, holding hands and sitting together. Quiet conversation and singing can also help to reassure them that they will be ok.
  • Accept the child’s responses, reactions and feelings. Don’t tell them to ‘be good’ to ‘stop being silly’, or to ‘be brave’.
  • Change their expectations about age appropriate behaviour and the expression of emotions.
  • Allow the child to talk and say what needs to be said. Let them cry, but do not force them to talk. Calming and quiet conversation will help a child to settle and feel safe.
  • Answer any questions factually, clearly and concisely without unnecessary detail. If the parent does not have information its ok to say so.
  • Not make promises which may not be able to be kept or make statements that may not be accurate.
  • Connecting with siblings and other family.

Regaining a sense of emotional safety and physical safety will help stabilise the infant and child.

Working with the parent or other caregivers to provide a safe, secure, supportive environment is essential. If children were separated from parents at the time of the event, then the parents’ reactions, both immediately and subsequently, will be important for the child, as will be how much parents, even in their own distress, can support and respond to the child afterwards. The broader family and social network are key resources at this time, as is the community and child care or preschool support systems.

Helping children involves also helping parents, or other caregivers close to the child:

  1. Support them with their own needs about their experiences given the disaster and their own trauma and grief. Ensure that they are looking after their own safety and wellbeing.
  2. Provide them with advice about their children’s needs and how to support them. For instance, infants and children need reassurance:
    • that they are loved
    • that they will be safe and secure
    • that they can share, or speak about, any of their feelings
    • that they can ask questions that will be answered simply and honestly
    • that they will be comforted and looked after now and in the future
    • that their reactions are normal and will pass in time
    • by giving a simple explanation of what has happened and what will happen next.
  3. Remind parents that it is important to:
    • avoid unnecessary separations over the next few weeks
    • be mindful of the child’s needs and reactions and be responsive to them
    • help the child to manage any physical reactions such as using slow and steady breathing when they are tense, breathing rapidly or fidgeting
    • connect the child with something familiar – a person, a place, an object as soon as possible. Familiarity and routine help establish and maintain recovery
    • encourage play, listen to music and have fun.

Helping children involves supporting their resilience by recognising and promoting their:

  • positive, hopeful and optimistic responses
  • connectedness to others and their social skills
  • capacity for recognising and expressing their own feelings
  • capacity to focus and problem solve as appropriate to their developmental sense of self.

Self-care for practitioners

Experiencing a disaster personally and/or being a practitioner in a community that has recently experienced a disaster can be overwhelming. It is important that you attend to your self-care and that of your family.

Putting in place strategies for self-care is essential for practitioners working in trauma and post disaster.

Some essential tools for this include linking into peer supports, ensuring you receive regular supervision, engaging in stress reduction activities and seeking opportunities to reflect on your experiences with your professional colleagues.

This document was reviewed in 2018 and is adapted from resources originally authored by the Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network.
Ruth Wraith OAM; MCPP

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