What educators can expect in the long term after a disaster or community trauma

Emerging Minds, Australia, 2018

Resource Summary

Key points

  • Childcare and school environments can provide much needed safety, stability and predictability for children.
  • Children of all ages can be profoundly affected by disasters and traumatic events. Children need special attention and are vulnerable to long-term issues.
  • Educators need support around their own wellbeing to be able to help the children in their care.
  • The majority of adults and children will see their symptoms lessen gradually over time and eventually resolve.
  • Some may need additional support if their symptoms are preventing them from recovering.
  • A minority of children may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the event. PTSD is a group of severe symptoms that occur after a traumatic event and continue at a high level for a month or more.
  • Children who have experienced trauma find it harder to learn for a number of reasons.

In the months after a disaster or traumatic event, focus tends to turn to rebuilding physical structures (like buildings and schools) and the goal of everything and everyone ‘returning to normal’.

As communities and people resume their usual routines, there can be great opportunities to come together and support each other. , if you or children at your school are still experiencing difficulty you can feel increasingly isolated rather than supported. It may feel sometimes like people are trying to forget what happened or don’t want to hear about what you are feeling.

The reality is that even if you don’t see it, many people around you are still dealing with what happened and may have difficulties for some time. As much as everyone is trying their best to move forward, this doesn’t mean the event isn’t still affecting them and their families.

It is normal to experience numerous effects from a traumatic experience for a long time after it happens, even years. As communities and people resume their usual routines, there can be great opportunities to come together and support each other.

Educators play a challenging but crucial role in helping communities get back on their feet. Schools can represent a place of consistency and familiarity when lots of other things in children’s lives have changed or are still changing. Research shows that getting back to routine helps both adults and children, and educators are in a unique position to monitor children over time to see if they are doing okay, and to help inform parents about their child’s wellbeing.

Mister Rogers, a children’s television host in America, once explained to his audience what his mother used to tell him as a child when he saw scary things on the news:

‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster’, I remember my mother’s words and am always comforted by realising that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

Educators are one of the key groups of helpers who help children feel safe and recover well after a traumatic event. Even things you consider too small to matter can help children feel better after big changes in their life.

What can I expect to happen in this time?

It can take many months, even years, for families and communities to return to a state of normal functioning after a disaster or traumatic event. As months go by, focus tends to turn towards getting everyone ‘back on track’ and over time, it may feel like the event has been forgotten.

It is likely you and those in your community will not return to the lives you had before the event but will need to build a ‘new normal’ based on familiar routines, stability and support for each other and things you enjoy. There may be a heightened focus in this time on disaster preparation. This can make both children and adults feel confident and empowered, but it can also be incredibly difficult, especially if you have experienced loss or are still having trouble coming to terms with what you have been through.

You may have heard about ‘showing resilience’ or ‘being resilient’, but resilience does not mean being strong or unaffected. It is more about being able to recover over time with the right help and support and learning how to manage overwhelming feelings like sadness or anger, which may come back up when you are reminded of the event.

Children in your class may get very upset or angry sometimes, even if you are not sure why – this does not mean that they aren’t being resilient. It may just mean that they need some extra support to help manage their feelings and reminders that they are safe and even though right now is very hard, things will get better as time goes on.

Schools play a crucial role in helping the community return back to normal. Two main things help children after a disaster:

  1. The ability of the adults around them to cope well.
  2. Stability, safety and routine.

Schools help with both of these; they provide a space for children to feel safe again and a normal routine with supportive adults, peers and purpose in learning.

What feelings might come up for me or the children at my school?

Childhood trauma can occur when children experience an overwhelming event that threatens their sense of safety. It can result in changes in the brain and body, as well as heightened fears and anxieties.

In order to develop healthily, children need stability and trust; two things that are often disrupted or shaken after a disaster or traumatic event. Things change very fast and children can lose trust that they are safe or that their parents can always stop bad things from happening.

Many people experience post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) after a traumatic event, which is different from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSS refers to symptoms that occur at a low, manageable level – or only some symptoms occur. Most people will experience different levels of post-traumatic stress rather than developing the disorder PTSD.

Most people know a little about PTSD but it is helpful to understand what this diagnosis actually means. PTSD is a group of stress reactions that can occur after experiencing a traumatic event and continues at a high level for one month or more. These symptoms need to be at a level where they are significantly impacting a person’s ability to function to meet the criteria for a diagnosis.

In the months following a traumatic event, you or children at your school may continue to experience a range of PTSSs. These are broadly categorised into re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance symptoms, increased anxiety and disturbance of moods.

Key symptoms of PTSS

Reliving or re-experiencing the event. This can include having flashbacks (like going into a dream when you are awake and losng touch with what is happening around you) or vivid, upsetting memories, intrusive thoughts that constantly interrupt you, and ongoing nightmares or bad dreams that don’t get better over time.

Attempting to avoid reminders of the event or loss. This can include refusing to go places where you will see people or things that remind you of the event, using alcohol or drugs to avoid thoughts and feelings or refusing to speak to people about the event. Reminders can also include non-specific signs of danger, like hearing sirens.

Increased anxiety or feeling like you are constantly ‘on guard’. This can include getting startled by small things or feeling like you are ‘tightly wound’ all the time. It is often harder to sleep, relax or take in moments around you when you are feeling like you have to constantly be on watch for danger.

Negative mood and negative or unhelpful thoughts. These can include getting angry at yourself because you think you could have done something differently, feeling guilty that you survived, feeling like you don’t deserve good feelings or experience things you like and enjoy or regularly feeling things like sadness, shame, fear and anxiety.

If you are concerned that you or children in your class have symptoms such as these that have not lessened over time or are getting worse, please speak to your school executive to activate the right supports. This may start with a visit to your GP.

Take note: Sometimes, physical symptoms will persist, like trouble sleeping or unexplained aches and pains, even if you are feeling good otherwise. Physical symptoms are also more likely to happen if you are not coping well and likewise, it can be harder to cope with stress or mental health difficulties if you are injured or sick.

Considering a child’s reaction

Children understand their world through a network of family, friends and community. How children recover after a traumatic event is directly impacted by how well those around them cope and how well the community recovers. After a stressful event, existing difficulties tend to get worse, whereas communities and families with strong economic and social networks tend to do better.

Children are more likely to experience long-term difficulties after a disaster if they:

  • had existing vulnerabilities or difficulties at home before the event, such as family violence or other conflicts
  • experienced the disaster personally, felt their life was threatened or witnessed their parents in danger or leaving to help others
  • experienced challenges or big changes after the event occurred, such as finding a new home, moving town or schools or had family members struggle with recovery
  • may be more sensitive or empathetic, or have trouble with ‘big feelings’ like sadness or anger
  • were injured during the event, fell sick afterwards or have a physical, mental or developmental disability.

Your reaction to the event affects how you interact with the children at your school. If you are having trouble coping, you may find that you are:

  • withdrawn or unavailable to your class and school, or feeling like you can’t deal with their concerns or questions
  • not interested in or feeling like you just can’t teach disaster preparedness right now
  • constantly reminding your class to be careful and prepared in case another disaster or event happens
  • wondering how children at your school can play or be joyful when such a terrible thing happened or may happen again.

Your own recovery from these difficulties after the event is dependent on lots of factors, including how severe your experience was, or if you lost loved ones or your home. Financial difficulties can also affect recovery, particularly where you have had to move to temporary accommodation, been unable to return to work, cannot access medication or usual food supplies. Children are also affected by all of these factors.

What can I expect from the children at my school?

Infants and children can be directly affected by trauma no matter their age, but they can also be affected if their parents and family are suffering. Children are sensitive to what is called ‘secondary adversity’, which is the name for challenges and changes after a big event, such as moving schools or homes.

Some children will make an effort to be obedient and well-behaved after a traumatic event and it is only when they feel secure and safe, that the impact of trauma is shown through a variety of behaviours. Children may take up to six months to show signs that they aren’t feeling okay.

Many children will display signs of post-traumatic stress; however, this does not mean that they have PTSD.

PTSD occurs when the four types of symptoms above (re-experiencing, avoidance, increased anxiety or like you are ‘on guard’ all the time, and negative mood or thoughts) are all happening at a very high level and impeding your child’s ability to function in day-to-day life.

Most children will display some of these or all of them at a lower, more manageable level but all children will need help and support from parents and other adults to manage these symptoms.

There are also symptoms of PTSD that are typically associated with your child’s age. (The following symptoms do not include the full spectrum of behaviours your infant or child may show.)

Babies and young children (0–5)

Young children may not always know the words to say how they’re feeling and are more likely to act out through behaviours. This is why sometimes kids who have experienced trauma are sometimes thought of as naughty, misbehaving, aggressive or very shy.

Separation anxiety. This is where infants or young children don’t want to be alone or without caregivers, are very clingy or don’t want to explore or play with other children.

Getting very upset or distressed, where they may be inconsolable, when reminded of things to do with the event. Things that young children remember about the event can be different things that adults remember, so it may seem like they are getting upset over nothing or ‘out of nowhere’.

Trouble sleeping or persistent nightmares. Trouble sleeping is often an effect of increased anxiety or fears about the dark or being alone.

New fears or old fears coming back. Children can associate non-threatening things with the stress of the event and their fear that it may happen again. For example, if they had to leave their home in a car after a disaster, they may become anxious in cars.

Repetitive play. Children need to watch and do things many times to learn new skills; however, if children’s play repeats itself over many months or even years, or doesn’t mature as they do, it may be an effect of the disaster or trauma.

Regression of new skills. Children can sometimes temporarily ‘lose’ skills that have been recently been developed as a reaction to trauma. They can refuse to use the toilet, stop speaking or speak using limited words instead of sentences.

Middle childhood (6–8 years) and later childhood (9–12 years)

PTSD symptoms in middle childhood (6–8 years) and later childhood (9–12 years) are similar to each other but depend on the child and their circumstances.

Some of the symptoms of PTSD for these children are:

  • unexplained illness or aches and pains
  • denying the event happened or refusing to talk about it
  • remembering what happened in the wrong order or missing parts
  • seeing ‘signs’ that predicted the event or thinking it happened (or will happen again) because of something they did
  • an infatuation with disaster preparedness, like having a bag constantly packed and with them, or taking things with them to ‘protect themselves’
  • difficulty concentrating at school or paying attention
  • ‘playing disaster’ or ‘playing death’ through games or creative expression (writing stories or drawing pictures)
  • a lack of positivity or hope for the future. Some children may expect disasters to happen again or refuse to think or talk about the future
  • choices that are self-destructive or impulsive. Destructive or impulsive choices can sometimes come as a response to thinking that the future cannot be positive, so it doesn’t matter what they do
  • sadness, hopelessness or despair
  • low self-esteem or feeling like others can’t be trusted
  • behaviours reminiscent of younger children (clinginess, fussiness, not wanting to go to school or be alone, not wanting to toilet or sleep) or much older children (substance use or abuse, aggression and fighting, sexual promiscuity, self-harm).

What about anniversaries and reminders of the event?

The anniversary of a traumatic event can bring up a lot of feelings for you and the children at your school. It is a reminder of what happened and a chance to reflect on the time since the event, and what may happen in the future.

The occasion can bring up a lot of feelings that were also around when the event happened, like sadness at what was lost, anger that it happened, anxiety or fear that it might happen again or distress at seeing others upset.

Increased media and discussion around ‘marking the event’ can also bring up overwhelming feelings that you and others may not want to deal with again. These feelings can be just as strong as they were at the time of the event, even if it has been a long time since it happened.

For advice on what to do during anniversaries or when reminded of the event, see Managing anniversaries and other triggers.

What should I remember?

If you are worried about you or children in your class at any time, or if you or they do not seem to be coping well as time passes, please seek additional support from those around you. Ask for help in talking to a child’s parents, let your superiors know that children in your class may benefit from added support, and see your GP if you personally are feeling overwhelmed or are having trouble.

Up Next: What feelings might come up for me or the children at my school?

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