Helping Children Heal after a Natural Disaster

It seems that more and more of us have been adversely affected in some way by a natural disaster. The Christchurch earthquakes immediately come to mind, followed by Kaikoura and then the Canterbury bush fires.

It's not just the landscape that is altered by such events. Those with children, either of their own, or in their care, will have to deal with the after effects of major disruption to their lives. We look at what children need when faced with a natural disaster and give you some ideas about helping them to deal with trauma or significant change in their lives.

So what does your child need from you at times like these? The short answer is - normality.

Normality might be a long time coming for those hardest hit areas but ‘normal’ is exactly what young children in your life need most. 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.

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 events like earthquakes and aftershocks, as well as 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-shock ravaged house, town or city, or being displaced if your home was destroyed, you can help your child by:

1.         Making sure you get the support you need.

2.         Tuning into what your child's behaviours (and words if they have them) are telling you.

3.         Providing gentle, loving reassurance that you are there for them: that you see them, hear them and get what they are feeling.

Here are some excerpts from the first of two ‘Letters to Christchurch’, written in 2011 by the Infant Mental Health Association Aotearoa New Zealand, offering advice and support for those with babies and toddlers who are dealing with trauma:

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 traumatic events, does not change this view. You are it.

We 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 than usual to watch their face and listen to their chatter. Even if they don’t talk yet, take more time to listen to their babble, and think about what they might be 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 a traumatic event, 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 behaviour. 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 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.

For a list of ways you can help the children in your life after a traumatic event, read more at by searching 'After a Crisis: Helping Young Children Heal' or visit your GP for advice or a referral.