In the past five years there has been a series of natural disasters that have rocked Australian communities – from the 2009 fires in Victoria that destroyed 2030 houses and claimed 174 lives, to the January 2011 floods in Brisbane, Cyclone Yasi in northern Queensland in February 2011 and the recent bushfires in the NSW Blue Mountains.
We asked our spirituality and intuition coach, Katrina Cavanough, how we can help our children deal with the trauma and uncertainty that follow such catastrophic events.
By Katrina Cavanough
“Mum, there was ash at our school today.” My daughter looked at me with her big, round, beautiful eyes. Quicker than a GPS, my mind did the maths on the distance between the Wilton fire and my daughter’s school. Realising she was safe, I felt my body relax.
That night as I watched the TV news with my family I realised that households all over Australia would be viewing the same footage and hearing the same stories of strong winds, ferocious fires, destruction and great loss. I literally felt my heart reach out to the thousands of people who were now either affected by the fires or battling to save lives and property.
When a disaster strikes, whether it be a fire in our own community, a tsunami in a neighbouring country or world events like 9/11, it touches our life in some way.
These events are traumatic. Suddenly and unexpectedly we are reminded of the fragility of life, our own vulnerability and just how quickly things can change. It makes us feel different. It affects us all, including our children.
It is tricky to know how to help children at these times. As a therapist who works with children and mother who loves my own girls, it has been important for me to discover the best ways to help children when scary events happen. Here are three steps that I use – as a therapist and a mother. You can use these three steps for serious life events or even when your children are young and you are simply teaching them about feelings.
1. Make friends with your feelings
When disaster strikes we all feel fear, confusion and can become disoriented. We have lost our “normal”. Even if you are not directly affected as you watch a tragedy unfolding in other peoples lives, you can feel great waves of sympathy and sadness.
Feelings are a natural part of life. They show up when times are going well and when times are more challenging. When an adult acknowledges their own feelings it gives a clear message to a child that it is “safe to feel”. It’s OK, for example, for your child to see you cry. If you are sad, then just allow yourself to be sad and just make simple comments to your child such as “ Mummy just feels sad today” and “It is normal to feel sad when [insert event] happens. I will feel better soon”.
2. Help your child to find their feelings
The next step is to help your child find and name their own feelings. Adults’ emotions are experienced both through our bodies and minds and, while it is the same for children, they need to be taught to connect a describing word with the feeling. This gives them a sense of language and emotional literacy. It is really easy to help a child find their feelings. It can go something like this:
Mum: How do you feel?
Mum: Oh darling, it’s normal to feel sad. Let’s find where your sadness is in your body. Where can you feel it in your body?
Child: (usually pointing to the chest, tummy or head) My sadness is here.
Mum: You’re so clever to find where your sadness is in your body. Your sadness is clever too. It has a message for you. It is just a feeling telling you something has happened that you don’t like. Can I give you a cuddle? I will look after you until the sadness goes away.
In this simple exchange there is a powerful moment of adult-child connection and one that has many benefits. As a child learns to find and name their feelings they are also introduced to their own natural guidance system. Once a child learns to find and listen to their feelings they are empowered to trust their gut, make better life choices and experience greater emotional intelligence.
3. Reconnect them with their sense of safety and routine
Once the event has passed, it is important to return your child as close as possible to their usual daily routine. When something sudden and traumatic has occurred, such as a fire in the community or a death in the family, the truth is that life will never be quite the same again. It then becomes not about returning your life to the way it was before but rebuilding and establishing a new version of it.
Teaching children to be flexible enough to move with the changing tide of life is truly the essence of building their resilience. Children will watch and take your lead in these moments. When we demonstrate flexibility to our children by being open to new experiences and living life with hope and positive intention in our hearts, they learn that anything is possible – including rebuilding ourselves and our lives when sad times have crossed our path.