At the start of National Psychology Week 2020 (Sunday 8 to Saturday 14 November) Associate Professor Gene Hodgins (pictured inset), the Associate Head of the Charles Sturt School of Psychology, asks, how can we help children cope with major stressful events like drought, bushfires, COVID-19 and traumas like violence?
Major stressful events like drought, bushfires, and COVID-19 have occurred with upsetting frequency in 2020, and major events like these, as well as traumas like violence, can have a significant impact on the mental health and wellbeing of people, including children.
How do kids react to such major life events? And how can we help them cope?
Work done by psychologists and other mental health professionals can assist in answering these questions.
Sometimes people think that children cannot be affected by stressful events because they are either too young to remember it or don’t understand what is going on.
Unfortunately, this is not the case; children of all ages can be affected by events around them and can become stressed in response.
How do children react?
When a significant event occurs, adults and children will have their own response, and children can often experience distress even if they did not experience the event personally.
However, there are some common themes and behaviours that we see in children following a frightening event, with children showing different behaviours in different contexts.
For example, they may seem fine at home, but be very quiet and withdrawn at school, or vice versa.
Some of the common age-related behaviours we see include:
- refusal to go to school or be away from parents
- crying, shouting or fighting
- agitation, anxiety or distress
- refusal to speak or co-operate
- new fears or old fears returning
- fussiness or clinginess
- trouble concentrating or paying attention
- changes in sleeping or eating
- not wanting to play with friends or do sport
- playing ‘disaster’ or ‘death’
- a ‘frozen’ or ‘spaced out’ look
- acting in ways that are normally too young or too old for them.
While these reactions can be stressful for adults and children alike, they are often an age-appropriate way of trying to cope with what has happened. Often these reactions will reduce over time. If they persist, increase, or become dysfunctional, it is important to seek support.
Helping children to cope
There are many helpful steps caregivers can take to help support children’s recovery and help protect them from having ongoing difficulties:
- Listen and attend to your children carefully
- Speak to your children regularly about how they are feeling
- Check in with them over time and remember that frequent, shorter conversations are often more supportive than one-off chats
- Let your children know that you are available to talk with them when needed
- Encourage children to talk about their feelings to help them understand their experiences
- Sometimes children don’t have the words to describe their feelings, however you can reassure them that their feelings are normal and that they will come and go.
- Accept all the child’s answers about how they are feeling
- Avoid responses such as “you are too old to be doing this”, “stop being silly”, or to “get over it”. Telling children to “man up” or that “big girls don’t cry” isn’t helpful, because it tells them that it is not OK to feel sad or have difficulties with what is happening
- Answer the child’s questions honestly, with facts. Older children may need more details than younger children.
- Reassure the child that everything is being done to manage the situation
- It is OK for parents to admit that they don’t have all the answers
- Maintain a calm and non-threatening environment at home
- Children really benefit from one-on-one time with adults, like doing homework with Mum or Dad.
Try looking at things through your child’s eyes
If possible, try to see things from their point of view. This may help you to understand some of their reactions and behaviours. It may also assist in connecting and supporting them.
Model the skills you want to see in your child
Share with them how you are coping and what has helped. Be honest about how it is hard for you too, but with supports and time things will get easier.
Give your children extra time and attention
This can be difficult when families are recovering and demands on adults are high, but nevertheless, children need close personal attention to know they are safe. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or lengthy - the important thing is children feel connected to you and you can find time for them
Don’t expect perfection in yourself or your children
If things have gone badly, you’ve lost your temper or broken down, that is OK. Speak with your children afterwards, apologise if necessary, and reassure them that they are still safe and loved.
Take time to look after yourself so you can look after your children
This is not an indulgence, but a priority. Our children are not okay if we are not OK. Self-care is vital, so it is important that you seek out any help you need so you are better able to support your kids.
Foster hope for yourself, and your kids
Help them to see that their world is basically a safe place, people are usually good, and that life is worth living. It is important to remind yourself and your kids that this will pass.
- Support your child’s social connections with family, friends, school and hobbies
- Monitor media exposure
- Give your child the opportunity to make decisions and have their voice heard.
All children need stable and supportive environments to grow and develop. They depend on adults around them for safety and security, and need reassurance, care, and opportunities to share their feelings. Children look to adults around them during a traumatic or stressful time to help them make sense of what has happened.
Parents may also be dealing with their own stress and may need increased support to provide stability and routine for their children. The main things a child needs after a stressful event are adults who care about them and a stable routine.
For more information, contact:
Kids Helpline – 1800 55 1800
Lifeline – 13 11 14