HELPING CHILDREN AFTER A NATURAL DISASTER
December 1 2016
Many of you reading this will have been jolted away by the ground rolling and shaking a couple of weeks ago: not one but two earthquakes merging into a gigantic 7.8 magnitude quake just after midnight on 14th November.
One of the things about living on the 'Shaky Isles' is that we all need to be prepared for this happening at any time anywhere. Hopefully, for most of you, that night time drama soon receded and you were able to get on with your normal day to day lives.
But there will be others who are now dealing with the on-going effects of those first big quakes and who will have children of their own - or in their care - who are still struggling to cope. Hopefully what’s written here will help you to help them - and for those not affected, give you some ideas about helping children with other forms of trauma or significant change.
So what does your child need from you at times like these?
The short answer: Normal.
Normality might be a long time coming for those of you in the hardest hit areas but ‘normal’ is exactly what the young children in your life need right now. In the simplest terms, this means you being emotionally and physically available to them - as consistently and sensitively as possible. You are the centre of their world and they rely on you to keep it spinning as predictably and calmly as possible.
Because we now know without any doubt that babies’ brains are heavily under construction for the first three years (and even beyond), we also know they have little or no ability to make sense of, not just the earthquake and aftershocks, but any changes in the people who care for them. Quite simply, your stress becomes their stress - whether they show this externally or not.
And while it’s impossible to avoid the stress that comes with living in an earthquake and after-shocked ravaged house, town or city, you can help your child by (1) making sure you get the support you need, (2) tuning into what their behaviour (and words if they have them) are telling you - and (3) providing gentle, loving reassurance that you are there for them: that you see them, hear them and get what they are feeling.
Here’s a snippet from the first of two ‘Letters to Christchurch’, written in 2011 by the Infant Mental Health Association Aotearoa New Zealand (IMHAANZ) which offer advice and support for those with babies and toddlers and who are dealing with trauma:
As you already know, your young child looks to you for guidance, reassurance and comfort; you make their world safe. They don’t know that you can’t control environmental events. From their perspective, you are the almighty magician who makes their world right. Your baby, even in the face of recent events, does not change this view. You are it. We are very much thinking about you as you help make sense for your baby of what has and is happening.
We want to invite you to hold onto your baby’s view. We encourage you, in the chaos and rubble, to linger with your baby. Take a few more seconds to watch their face, listen to their chatter. Even if they don’t talk yet, take more time to listen to their babble, and then to wonder what they are saying to you.
After listening, talk a little bit more to them. You can talk about what you are doing, where you are going, what’s happening next. You might tell your young child about how you’re feeling and wonder about their feelings. If you are not so practiced at this, a good way to start is to ask yourself “when my child looks at me, what do they see, what might they be thinking?”
©Foley, M., Guy, D., & Zwimpfer, L. (2011). Dear Parents with Babies and Toddlers: Letter One. Infant Mental Health Association of Aotearoa new Zealand (IMHAANZ).
As you go about rebuilding your lives in the aftermath of the earthquake and aftershocks, it’s worth remembering that resilience isn’t built by not experiencing any stress. Resilience is built when stress is experienced with the help of supportive relationships. For young children, this means that you - the centre of their little world - make sense of the chaos and trauma for and with them. By tuning into and talking with your child about what’s happened and is happening, how you’re both feeling, and what may come - even if they are too young to talk back - you are helping to build their security and resilience. You can’t magic away the stress of living with the effects of a natural disaster but you can be the secure rock in the middle of their shaky world.
To finish, here’s some wisdom from the American National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN):
"Young children, toddlers, and preschoolers know when bad things happen, and they remember what they have been through. After a scary event, we often see changes in their behavior. They may cry more, become clingy and not want us to leave, have temper tantrums, hit others, have problems sleeping, become afraid of things that didn’t bother them before, and lose skills they previously mastered. Changes like these are a sign that they need help."
Use the acronym SAFETY to help you help them:
S - Safety: Focus on safety first
A - Allow expression of feelings
F - Follow your child’s lead
E - Enable your child to tell the story of what happened during and after the crisis event
T - Ties: Reconnect with supportive people, community, culture and rituals
Y - Your Child Needs You! This is the most important thing to remember.
© Chandra Ghosh Ippen, Alicia F. Lieberman & Patricia Van Horn (2005)
For a list of ways you can help the little ones in your life after a traumatic event, read the full one page article from the NCTSN titled, 'After a Crisis: Helping Young Children Heal'. This is included in the IMHAANZ 'Letters to Christchurch' and can also be found here: www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/assets/pdfs/helping_young_children_heal_crisis.pdf
If you’d like to read IMHAANZ’s two ‘Letters to Christchurch’ about their ideas on how to help babies and toddlers cope with a natural disaster (including on what to do with disrupted sleep), click here for Letter One: http://www.imhaanz.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/IMHAANZ-Earthquake-Letter.pdf and here for Letter Two: http://www.imhaanz.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/IMHAANZ-Earthquake-Letter-APRIL-1.pdf
If you feel like you or your child(ren) need help to cope with a traumatic event, visit your general practitioner for advice and/or a referral.