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  • Cassandra Hyland

Looking after children who have been affected by floods

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 floods 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 your 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 floods, 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 floods. 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 floods. Children can become re-traumatised 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 floods. 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 been distressed by the experience of the floods. 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 traumatic event, some children may show prolonged distress and could benefit from professional assistance. Children who are at risk of developing more lasting problems are those who have experienced significant disruption and losses, and those who have previously developed problems in response to other traumas.


Warning signs of more significant and lasting distress in children include:

• Continual and aggressive emotional outbursts

• Serious problems at school

• Preoccupation with the floods

• 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 any thoughts, feelings and behaviours associated with the floods.


Speak to your GP about a referral to a psychologist


Written by Australian Psychological Society





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