Helping children affected by bushfires.

Many children have been affected directly by recent bushfires, either having lost their homes and properties, or through being evacuated. Other children have experienced the fires indirectly, through hearing about them, or knowing someone who has been affected. These can be distressing experiences for children.

Impact of trauma on children

People cope with trauma in different ways and there is no one ‘standard’
pattern of reaction to the stress of traumatic experiences. Children are not
always able to express complex feelings in the same direct way that adults do
and therefore do not often show the same reactions to stress as adults. It is
therefore very important to look out for changes in children’s behaviour that
suggest they are unsettled or distressed.

Reactions to the trauma of the bushfires may result in changes to children’s
normal behaviour such as:

  • Changes in their play, drawing, dreams or spontaneous conversations
  • Regressive behaviour – children behaving younger than they normally do
  • Nightmares
  • Anxiety about sleeping alone
  • Trouble getting to sleep
  • Irritability or anger
  • Tantrums
  • Fussy eating
  • Withdrawing
  • Wanting to stay close to a parent
  • Problems concentrating at school
  • Children are usually very resilient and for most children these reactions will gradually reduce over time with the support of families.

How you can help children recover

After a traumatic event, children need comfort, reassurance and support,
and to know that they are safe and are being looked after.
Try to spend more
time with your children and provide them with plenty of affection through
cuddles and hugs. Sometimes children can better express their feelings
through play than through words, so make time to play with them. Let them
be more dependent on you for a while and try to re-establish daily routines, for example routines around mealtimes, bedtimes or returning to school
where possible.

Find out what your children know in case they have mistaken ideas or facts
about the bushfires, and correct any misconceptions. Keep your responses
appropriate to the age of your child and also appropriate to the child’s
level of understanding and emotional maturity. Young children often need
reassurance more than facts.

Listen to your children’s concerns. Listen closely to what they are asking or
saying, and think about whether they are looking for factual information, or if
the questions are expressing anxiety about the bushfires. Try to keep your own
feelings to yourself when talking about their feelings. Let them know that you
understand how they feel.

Monitor how much your children are being exposed to media stories of the bushfires. Children can become retraumatised by watching repeated images
on the television and it is best to try to shield them from the media.

Be aware of how you talk. Adults need to be conscious of the presence of
children when discussing the bushfires. It is a good idea not to let children
overhear adult conversations about worrying things if they cannot join in at
their own age or stage of development.

And most importantly, look after yourself as it is likely that you have also
experienced the bushfire trauma. When parents are feeling cared for
themselves they are better able to respond to the needs of their children.

Seeking further help

While most children will bounce back after a trauma, some children may show
prolonged distress and could benefit from professional assistance. Children
who are more at risk of developing more lasting problems are those who have
lost family and friends, those who have been seriously injured or witnessed
horrific scenes, and those who have developed problems in response to
past traumas.
Warning signs of more significant and lasting distress in children include:

  • Continual and aggressive emotional outbursts
  • Serious problems at school
  • Preoccupation with the bushfires
  • Intense anxiety or emotional difficulties

A qualified mental health professional such as a psychologist can help such children and their parents or caregivers to understand and deal with the thoughts, feelings and behaviours associated with the trauma of the bushfires. Speak to your GP about a referral to a psychologist or phone the APS Find a Psychologist service on 1800 333 497. Alternatively, you can locate a psychologist in your area by visiting the APS Find a Psychologist website – www.findapsychologist.org.au.

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