Transcript for
The ongoing psychosocial needs of children following a community trauma

Runtime 00:20:07
Released 25/3/19

Narrator [00:00:02] Welcome to the Emerging Minds podcast.

Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:00:07] This podcast is part of our series about supporting children and families with regard to disasters and community trauma events. You are with Laura Gooyers-Bourke and today, I’m speaking with Michelle Roberts about the ongoing psychosocial needs of children following a community trauma. Michelle is a psychologist and expert in the areas of child and adolescent trauma, loss and grief and child disaster recovery. She brings over three decades of experience in education, both as a teacher and psychologist supporting school communities.

[00:00:38] Michelle, welcome and thank you so much for joining us today. So the first question, why do you think it’s important to consider the needs of children following a disaster or a community trauma?

Michelle Roberts [00:00:49] It’s an interesting question and a good starting point, because over the breadth of my time working in this area, I can easily recall when we took no notice of children in this space in the disaster context, let alone community events that we’re experiencing increasingly now, like mass casualty events. There was a misconception, I think, that children were so resilient or unaware that they weren’t impacted. But we now know and increasingly we’re getting the research to back it up that the developing brain is adversely impacted by these events. And without the right supports, we can alter their trajectory forever in terms of being members of community. We’re now listening to the child voiced increasingly. And in that period of time that I’ve worked in this area, I’ve seen where we’ve become aware of children’s needs in the recovery space. But even better, we’re now becoming aware of their needs before events. And we’re actually giving them the tools to take care of themselves in disaster contexts. And that not only helps to keep them physically safe, but it has benefits psychologically because they develop a sense of self-efficacy and that’s a protective factor as well. But as an up and coming citizens and as the people that are often seen as being most vulnerable, we can certainly do a lot to support them and to guide them and to make sure that the overwhelming experience of a disaster isn’t going to define their whole life.

Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:02:13] You’ve mentioned in your work that children don’t experience these events in the same way as adults. Can you explain how they experience a disaster differently?

Michelle Roberts [00:02:22] There’s not a lot of research, is the first thing. And so it’s my observation and I keep on checking that because I think perhaps as adults working in the area and researchers working in the area, we haven’t been attuned to the needs and the situation for children adequately to be confident in making that statement. But certainly we know that children don’t have the same breadth of life experience to measure the event as one part of their life as adults can often do. They define whether something’s a catastrophic threat by the adults around them and their responses. Their vulnerability often comes not only from their own developmental perspective of their inner world and the external living, but also in terms of the secondary adversities that they face and that’s that their carers and the people they love aren’t as available as struggling with their own responses. And so there are a unique coming together of vulnerabilities for children that are not only from within their own world, but also from those around them that care and to teach them. So as an educator, one of the things that we’ve noticed after major disasters like the 2009 Victorian bushfires was the struggle that the teachers had to be present for the children because they, too, had been similarly exposed. And we saw the same thing in parents where they were dealing with overwhelming emotions and the impact on their ability to attend and concentrate, let alone parent, in the way that they had wanted to or had been parenting before.

Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:03:57] What are some of the impacts or reactions that parents or carers might see from children following a disaster?

Michelle Roberts [00:04:04] There’s clearly a big range of things that we see and there are some core observations you can make in terms of the likelihood of regressive behaviours in young children. We see that children who, for example, were fully toilet trained, regressed to being back into nappies and needing that level of support. We see an increase in cleanness and needing to just anchor themselves emotionally more regularly than they had been. We see a loss of independence in young children, but sometimes we see outrageous independence in adolescents who go about the business of seizing the day. Having seen that, you can be safe one minute, unsafe the next, and they decide at some sort of either conscious or unconscious level to seise the day and to live their life. And we often see an increase in risk taking behaviour in adolescence. In our middle range children, we see phase grieving if there’s been loss and grief experienced. And sometimes that confuses adults because they think that sometimes they’re happy sometimes. They said, you know what’s going on here? We can also see from a school perspective a real struggle to pay attention and to concentrate and a loss of academic trajectory. And in fact, there’s some amazing research that the University of Melbourne has undertaken where we’ve actually identified a loss of academic ability in children from the Victorian bushfires in certain areas. And we’re contemplating whether that’s linked to the changes in brain at that point in time, that developmental point. So it can have a biological impact, can have a psychological impact, and of course, it can have a social impact for children. We’re not that good at recognising that as adults in children, because we can see behaviours that we would call externalising behaviours. And these are the kids that are bouncing off the roof in your classroom or at home. And we often respond to those children and eventually arrive at a point of understanding that this might be related to their exposure to the disaster or the eventing community. But it’s the quiet kids that we overlook and the internalising children that we don’t always realise that they’re sad and they’re frightened and they’re still struggling to make sense of a very challenging event and that they look to those people around them to reassure them and provide them with predictability and understanding and routine.

Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:06:30] So it sounds like it’s really important to consider all signs from children across all ages, whenever they’re very big and outward or more quiet and flying under the radar.

Michelle Roberts [00:06:41] The really easy guide to give to adults when they’re thinking about how they can best support the children in their lives after an event like this is to observe and to have curious questioning of the child, but also to think about whether or not there’s been significant changes in the way that child behaves because they might have been outgoing and outrageously active previously and there’s no change or they might suddenly become subdued and frightened. I’ve had sixteen-year-old boys who can’t sleep in their own bed alone any longer and need to be back in the bed with their parents were reassurance after big events like we’re talking about today. And I’ve seen little people who don’t want to be bothered with anyone because they’re not quite sure who they can trust any longer. So the curious framing of what’s going on for that child and the ability to put yourself in that child’s shoes and see things from their perspective and then check your understanding with that child is so important.

Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:07:36] Yeah, agreed. So following a disaster, a community trauma, parents and carers often work through their own emotions in response to the event. What are some of the things that can impact parenting during this time, and how can parents be supported to overcome these challenges?

Michelle Roberts [00:07:55] Sixty-four million dollar question in my mind is had we best support parents to be the best parents they can in a situation like this, and I had the great fortune to visit Israel to look at the programs that they had in place in their schools and community. So their challenges were continuous. So not the one of big events that we’re talking about in terms of disasters, but the ongoing sense of threat from rocket attacks. And we visited a kindergarten where they had a bomb shelter in the kindergarten. Such was the level of risk. And the educators in that kindergarten were working to reattach the parents and the children together because they found that under constant threat, the parents were keeping a safe distance emotionally from their child because they didn’t want to feel the full impact of the loss of the child if that was to happen. And of course, those little people weren’t growing and developing, as we would hope. And the program invited the parents into the kindergarten. They brought a meal they set and they shared the meal with their child because they weren’t even sitting down together at any point in. They said they had to reteach that point of connection. And for their culture, food was a very important way to connect. And then they had the parents do activities with the children that were safe, but slight risk taking activities so that they could tolerate the discomfort of a bit of arousal. But in a safe way here in Australia, when we look at parenting in this context, our challenge is to support parents, to parent as they were before, or even more and better and  to time. How as psychologists working in this space, we can access the parents when they’re not overwhelmed themselves and are able to take on board the support that’s being offered. So in a community recovery sense, it’s very difficult to find the right time. And it’s certainly been my experience when I’ve gone into communities after large scale disasters where individual parents will come up and say, I’m noticing this in my child. Do you think it might be related? And you can answer on that level. But I also have parents who say I find my own responses are impacting on my child because I’m really angry on easy to become angry. I can’t remember what to do at the supermarket any more because I’m so overwhelmed myself. I can’t be bothered with her neediness anymore. She’s so clingy. I just need a bit of space. I’ve got so much to do after the disaster. I’m rebuilding the house. I’m dealing with the insurance companies. I haven’t got time for that stuff. So we hear a whole range of responses from parents that impact on children. And we’re trying to think about the ideal recovery space for children and to shore up the adults in their life and to make sure that we’re looking after the adults is a really good way to look after children in it, particularly in a school situation, but also in a community situation. The other thing we find is that parents are absent both in their minds and physically after a large scale disaster. There may be losses involved where that parent has died. And then we’ve got a really complex bereavement to be supporting the child through, as well as their trauma responses to the fear that’s being brought about by the exposure to the event. It’s a timing. Supportive parenting is a challenge and I don’t know the answer to that.

[00:11:19] And so the strategy that I’ve used and we use collectively mostly is to still be guided by the person’s needs unless we can see that there’s a really terrible something happening and we know that there’s a significant increase in family violence after disasters. And so getting the balance between being responsive and being preventive is still a challenge, I think, in this space.

Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:11:44] Yeah, we’ve heard that from other experts in the field as well. So I think it continues to be an ongoing area of further thought that we can all be considering.

Michelle Roberts [00:11:53] I think so. But I also think it’s on people’s radars now, and it wasn’t ten years ago. And I think that we’re collectively moving increasingly to understanding the benefits of the before work so that we have got something to build upon when an incident like this happens or a disaster. And I suppose the psycho educational component always is the thread that runs through this work. And we’re pretty opportunistic about that. We take our chances when we can and we share the information that we’ve got. And if I think about an event that we had in Victoria recently with the Bourke Street incident and not the most recent one, but the one on January 20th, it actually took a good six to eight months for a number of parents to realise that their children had been impacted. So even though their children were with them at the time or they knew what had happened to their parents who had been directly impacted, there was no space in that. Parents head to go that next step to think about what does this mean for my child? And I guess we have to acknowledge that as an adult involved, an event like that, the nature of the event is such that it’s too much to bear to think that your child’s also being harmed by that intentional act of violence.

[00:13:09] And so it’s almost a self-protective thing to avoid that thinking. But in fact, it’s six, eight months down. The track is a long time for a little person to be holding onto the worry without having the right support around.


Narrator [00:13:24] You’re listening to an Emerging Minds podcast.

Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:13:30] So a lot of your work has been with schools. How do you think that schools and parents can work together to prioritise the needs of children following a disaster?

Michelle Roberts [00:13:40] How can they? They do. They just do. When I think about the disasters that I’ve been involved in, the school has been the centre point of the community. The schools been the reference point for community, even if the disaster occurs during school holidays or on weekends. People gravitate to the school for the advice. The support for themselves as well as their children. And I think that puts an incredible burden on the educators. And we do a lot of work in the education sector to make sure that educators know how to support the schools, know how to look after themselves and know who to reach to for help when they need it. And that we put the resources around them. Because as I said earlier, if we shore up the adults, we shore up the children. If we shore up the schools, we shore up the community. So we see that sort of ecological sort of model emerging in real life every time in this circumstance. So we go through with our schools and we teach them about the impact that these events can have on children, what they can do to mitigate the adverse impacts in the situation, who they reach to, if they need some more advice or support for themselves. We talk a lot about self-care and we never used to do that.

[00:14:58] And we’re working towards I’m hoping that, you know, this is some sense that we need to have schools open because people do come to schools for help, but there’s no point coming to the school for help. If the educators aren’t looked after as well. And so we work with the educators in schools to get them sorted, to get them calm, to talk about their experiences. They want you to make sure that everything’s working as best it can for them. And then we look to the inn to support the children and the community. Sometimes that’s a bit of a balancing act and a challenge, but we mostly keep it in mind and do the best we can.

Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:15:35] What can parents and children do to help re-establish their family’s sense of safety and wellbeing following a disaster or community trauma?

Michelle Roberts [00:15:42] It’s a real challenge. You know, I wish I could say all you have to do is this, but it’s it’s so dependent upon the nature of the disaster experienced what the individual experience was. So the subjective experience, the objective reality, what the exposures were, what the fears were, what the thoughts were. I’ve worked with children in that circumstance where my assumption was that they would be absolutely traumatised. You know, when I hear their narrative, I think, how can you be sitting here so calmly about it? And yet their appraisal of the event was that they knew what was happening. They knew what action to take. They took action that was successful. They wouldn’t want to do it again, but they were in a safe place, relatively speaking, at that time. So re-establishing safety and well-being is both an individual and a family unit thing. And there’ll be differential needs in that. And that can also be a challenge. But it really is about tuning into each other. It’s about open conversation that’s age appropriate. It’s about predictability and explanation. And it’s about working together collectively to manage the hurdles that you have to after a disaster or a community wide event. And I think one of the really important things is that we let children know that there are other adults they can speak with that are safe adults. So we do a lot of talking about, you know, who do you feel right to talk to about it? How can we support that person? It’s fantastic that some children have parents, they have other adults, and they have teachers that they can check in with and talk about their worries. And and actually, I guess, talk very clearly about what it is that makes them feel unsafe. And earlier on, I spoke about the assumptions we make about what was frightening for the child. We really have to ask them, what was your worst moment? What has been frightening for you? Because it’s very difficult to know exactly what that experience has been for the child.

Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:17:49] Yeah, I think asking them their own opinions is always really important to finding the avenues that we need to take in starting those conversations.

Michelle Roberts [00:17:57] So, in fact, starting from the child’s perspective is always our first recommendation, isn’t it?

Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:18:02] Definitely. Do you have any other advice that you think could be helpful for families and communities?

Michelle Roberts [00:18:09] Advice is always a tricky thing, isn’t it? Because I’m really conscious that a broad brush advice is very difficult to give and that we really have to consider the people the event, as I said. But, um, I think if I had a magic wand, I would really like. For adults to stop and think about what it is for the child, what the experience might have been, and to have the questioning with their child about, you know, how are you feeling? When we did some work with young children and we got them to talk in front of parents about what their experience had been, frequently parents didn’t know the exposure’s children had had. And they were quite shocked to know that their kids actually understood as much as they did or they felt frightened by what they did. And recently, I’ve done some work with older children. So ten to twelve year olds and they’ve talked about their parents underestimating them, but not wanting to hear what their thoughts were and what their actions were, but also what their fears were. So if we can encourage teachers and parents and adults in children’s lives to stop and have a think about the child and their perspective, then my magic wand is working pretty well.

Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:19:23] I think that’s a great answer. Thank you very much, Michelle, for joining us today. We really appreciate the time you took to come and have a chat with us.

Michelle Roberts [00:19:30] My pleasure. Thank you.

Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:19:31] Thank you.

Narrator [00:19:33] Visit our website at to access a range of resources to assist your practice. Brought to you by the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health, led by Emerging Minds. The National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health under the National Support for Child and Youth Mental Health Program.