Helping kids cope: flood aftermath

“In the aftermath of these widespread floods, I think the reaction from children is going to be highly varied,” said Dr Shakespeare-Finch, who has worked with trauma survivors, including emergency service personnel and people affected by natural disasters, for 13 years.

“There will be children who saw things on television, who won’t even connect what they saw with their own reality. The chance of them being affected is extremely low unless they have had similar experiences firsthand in the past.

“The children we really need to look after are in areas such as Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley, who know someone who died, or who experienced the torrential flow of rising water firsthand.

“For approximately the next month, there will be a range of reactions that would be considered normal. Children who have been directly affected may get intrusive thoughts – where they picture images of the floods and may have nightmares.

“If they are really young they may have separation anxiety. They may not want to be away from their parents and things that are familiar to them. Other children might be unusually irritable, or withdrawn, or acting out in an aggressive way.

“For country kids – they might not want to go near a dam or river or things that remind them of the flood.

“If after four weeks, these normal reactions haven’t dissipated, that’s when parents should seek help from psychologists, counsellors, or trauma experts.”

How parents, carers and teachers handle children’s reactions over the next month should vary depending on the individual child, according to Dr Shakespeare-Finch.

She suggested they shouldn’t pre-empt or tell the child how to feel or react, and to be open and accepting of their individual reaction.

“Talking about how they feel is useful. But if they can’t talk or don’t want to, draw pictures, listen to music, do things that give them a capacity to express how they feel,” she said.

“It might even be kicking a ball to let out some frustration. Allow them to express themselves, but make sure they get to do this in a safe environment.

“Don’t forget to hug your kids and remind them you’re there and they are safe.

“Return to normal routines as soon as you can. Even if your house has been gutted, do things you normally do – if you usually go to the park, go to the park. If you normally take your dog for a walk, do that. It creates a sense that the immediate danger has gone.

“One of the things you can do if you’re wanting children to have some good experiences come out of this would be to assist other people in some way. Just like adults, it helps kids to realise how fortunate they are, and they feel good about themselves helping others.”

Dr Shakespeare-Finch said teachers and vacation care workers may have children in their classroom with varied experiences and reactions, who require different things.

“Teachers need to be aware they shouldn’t instigate discussions with a child who has lost things. Just let kids know that if they want to talk, you are there. Then if a child indicates they do want to talk, the teacher can arrange for the child to see someone with appropriate qualifications. They are a gatekeeper rather than a psychological triage unit!

“If the children want to have a forum or group discussion at school, then take their lead, but make sure the person running that discussion is a skilled facilitator. Some special education teachers have some experience in developmental psychology and might be better placed to have these discussions.

“It’s important that the kids having such discussions actually want to be there, and that they have a choice about that. And often their parents will want to be there also.”

Beyond this initial aftermath period, Dr Shakespeare-Finch said parents and carers needed to watch out for physical symptoms.

“If a child hasn’t been able to adequately express him or herself, or process the traumatic experience, their trauma can manifest in their body, even long after the event. Watch for things like belly aches or aching legs. Of course it is always wise to seek medical assistance, but in some cases it might be a physical manifestation of trauma.”

Media contact: Michaela Ryan, QUT media officer, 07 3138 4494 or [email protected]