Guidelines to helping children deal with traumatic experiences : Garden Route fires
Helping children deal with traumatic experiences like the recent Garden Route fires involves a lot of constant reassurance. A child’s entire sense of safety in the world can feel shattered when experiencing something traumatic. A traumatic event is seen as something – sudden, unexpected and life threatening. The recent Garden Route fires, which have effected so many, has meant that virtually every child in these communities has been impacted and/or traumatized in some way.
Some were emergency evacuations, without any time to pack, seeing and smelling the smoke and flames very close to their properties, and/or even watching their homes go up in flames. Those who lost homes have experienced the severest extent of trauma, and often returned to complete devastation (sometimes having lost their pets and livestock). Many others were evacuated with a bit more time – panicking about what to take and leave behind and dealing with the extremely stressful challenge of reaching safety. Still others were not evacuated, yet were smelling the smoke and hearing about the danger – worrying about friends and loved ones, as well as whether or not the fire may reach their area (and therefore they too may need to evacuate).
Four main principles to help children cope :
- ensuring safety – this is all about repeatedly reassuring your child that they are safe, the danger is over.
- talking about it / letting the feelings out – children are less able to express themselves and their feelings; they often need support in getting out their feelings (this can be done through creative, physical and/or imaginative methods)
- normalizing symptoms – explaining to kids that what they are going through (e.g. nightmares/anxiousness) is normal after such a dramatic experience
- getting more help – professional support in the form of trauma counseling may be needed (depending on the intensity of the trauma, the child’s previous history of experiencing other traumatic events, their age and ability to process it healthily with your support)
Watch this short video discussing these principles in more detail.
Remember : Everyone has been affected.
Even after the worst fires were over, everyone continued to be directly affected – through the constant smell of smoke, the sounds of helicopters and fire sirens, hearing the traumatic stories of friends and being involved in the various fire relief efforts. It’s important to be patient with ourselves and each other. Overcoming traumatic events is a process that invites us to be really gentle and nurturing with our pain, fear and sadness. Getting over it may take quite a bit of time and patience – especially for us adults who tend to avoid our feelings, push them down and/or deny the extent of the event in an attempt to cope and carry on.
For those worst affected, it’s a long road taken one step at a time. To overcome the shock, feel the loss and come to acceptance or make meaning of this tragedy, we need to pull together as a community, supporting each other to rebuild trust and sense of safety for our kids. The key word is reassure, reassure, reassure!