Responding To Children In A Post-Disaster Situation

Apr 29 2019. views 289

The Easter Sunday attack has put Sri Lanka into grief, so much so that some find it difficult to handle the trauma. Having suffered from a 30-year ethnic conflict, trauma hasn’t been something new for most Sri Lankans. But the recent turn out of events blotted the reconciliation process in a major way that recovery now has to start from square one. Many children were among those who were dead and unlike for adults, children will find it difficult to respond to a traumatic situation. Seeing their friends or siblings dead would add to the sorrow. 

Hence the Daily Mirror Life takes a closer look at how adults should respond to children during a post-trauma situation. 

In her comments, Buddhiprabha Pathirana, Developmental Psychologist and Head of Department of Psychology, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at University of Peradeniya said that it is important to talk to the child using age-appropriate language and explanations. “Allow the child to ask questions and answer them as truthfully as possible. Be patient if the child asks the same question many times, and try to be consistent with answers and information. If you can’t answer a question, admit to the child that you don’t know the answer.”

In addition to that, she referenced some standard guidelines which could be followed when responding to children ;

Don’t deny: If the child knows accurate, upsetting details, don’t deny these. When someone has died, it can be tempting to soften this news by telling a child that the person has “gone to sleep”, but this is best avoided, as it may result in the child becoming fearful of sleep.

Don’t force the child to speak: A child may stop talking altogether after a trauma, and if this happens, you should not try to force or coerce the child to speak. Equally, you should never coerce a child to talk about their feelings or memories of the trauma before they are ready to do so.

Allow children to talk about their feelings: Some children prefer to express their feelings through writing, drawing, or playing with toys.

Never direct them on their feelings: You should never tell the child how they should or shouldn’t be feeling. Don’t tell the child to be brave, or not to cry, and don’t make judgements about their feelings. Don’t get angry if the child expresses strong emotions; instead tell them it is okay to feel upset when something bad or scary happens

“If the child is living with you at home then try to keep your behaviour as predictable as possible,” she added. “Tell the child that you (and their other loved ones) love and support them. Encourage the child to do things they enjoy, such as playing with toys or reading books. You can help the child to feel in control by letting them make some decisions (e.g. about meals, or what to wear).”

Dealing with temper tantrums and avoidance behaviours

According to traumatic events: first aid guidelines for assisting children, published by Mental Health First Aid Australia, the following needs to be kept in mind when dealing with temper tantrums and avoidance behaviours; 

Be aware that the child may avoid things that remind them of the trauma (such as specific places, driving in the car, certain people, or separation from their parents or guardians). 
Try to figure out what triggers sudden fearfulness or regression in the child. 
If the child has temper tantrums or becomes fearful, crying and clingy in order to avoid something that reminds them of the trauma, ask them what they are afraid of. Don’t get angry or call the child ‘babyish’ if they appear to regress, for example by bed wetting, misbehaving, or sucking their thumb.
If the child avoids things which remind them of the trauma, but does not appear very distressed, ask what they are afraid of and assure them that they are safe.

Pathirana further said that the symptoms associated with trauma may suddenly or unexpectedly appear months or years after the event. If this occurs, professional help may need to be sought.

When to seek professional help 

Not all children will need professional help to recover from a traumatic event.

The following guidelines can help you to determine whether help is needed.

If at any time the child becomes suicidal, you should seek immediate professional help.

You should seek professional help for the child if, for 2 weeks or more after the trauma, the child;

•Is unable to enjoy life at all.

•Displays sudden severe or delayed reactions to trauma.

•Is unable to escape intense ongoing distressing feelings.

•His or her post-trauma symptoms are interfering with their usual activities.

•His or her important relationships are suffering (e.g. if they withdraw from their carers or friends).

You should seek professional help for the child if, for 4 weeks or more after the trauma, the child;

• Has temper tantrums or becomes fearful, crying and clingy in order to avoid something which reminds them of what happened.

•Still feels very upset or fearful.

•Acts very differently compared to before the trauma.

•Feels jumpy or has nightmares because of or about the trauma.
•Can’t stop thinking about the trauma.


Kamanthi Wickramasinghe

A psychology graduate who eventually became a journalist to be a voice for unheard voices. A proud Sri Lankan - Thalassophile - Travel fan - Nature lover - Chocoholic - Extraordinarily loud - Frequent laughaholic. Follow me on Instagram - @kamzylifeTM or FB – Kamanthi Wickramasinghe


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