Helping children deal with trauma
A response to the recent Canterbury earthquake
“Traumatic experiences can trigger a very wide range of symptoms for kids,” says John Cowan of The Parenting Place.
“Because they have an underdeveloped ‘emotional vocabulary’, children sometimes express their emotions in immature and
inappropriate ways. Parents need extra patience and love for kids at stressful times, which can be especially hard if
our own emotions are raw and stressed.”
After Canterbury’s recent earthquake, kids may be fearful of more earthquakes and of being left alone. They may worry
about their safety, their family and their future welfare. “Symptoms of severe stress or anxiety may include regression
(bedwetting, thumb-sucking), sleeplessness, anger, withdrawal or physical illness such as nausea or headaches. Parents
will need to be on the lookout for these kinds of symptoms so that they can help their kids. Different children will
need to be comforted in different ways – parents, trust your instincts and your heart! You represent safety. Your arms
around your kids and your reassurance is absolutely what they need the most. Little kids best handle stress and upset
when there is a ‘big person’ who enters into their world and takes it seriously.
Stress can be alleviated to an amazing extent by what we do physically. Panic can be greatly relieved by deliberate,
slow breathing and stretching exercises. When children seem stressed, think about something physical you could do with
Other things that can be great for easing stress are listening to music, or reading/playing a story to them. Older
children will benefit from relaxation exercises. Kids also love to know that you are prepared for emergencies. It
greatly reduces anxiety if they have a plan of what to do, so keep them in the loop. Have reassuring reunions at the end
of the day when you tell them what you have been doing.”
Something that may seem a bit counter-intuitive in the midst of a tragedy is fun. But for kids, it is very important
that this is not neglected. “Children have an amazing capacity to see the humour, fun and adventure even in terrible
situations. Playing together and having jokes can be wonderfully therapeutic, and can detoxify the emotions attached to
these events”, says Cowan.
When children overhear dramatic re-tellings of events or watch media coverage, they may experience feelings of fear that
are greater than they need to be. “One thing that adults usually have that children lack is an accurate perspective of
danger – ‘It was really scary, but we are safe now’, is a message that may need to be repeated often. On the flipside,
don’t deceive your kids, because they really need to trust you in times of stress. You can’t say there won’t be any more
aftershocks or even another big earthquake, but you could say something like, ‘There may be a few more – no one knows,
really – but we are prepared and you will be safe.’”
As adults, we understand that media news coverage tends to exaggerate, but children may be alarmed. “Though the media
have handled this event generally very well, it would be wise to limit the amount your children are exposed to news
coverage” says Cowan. “If you watch the news together, you might like to give your interpretation and perspective. Give
your reassuring ‘big picture’ interpretations of the event to your children and be prepared to handle their questions.
You are allowed to say you don’t know the answers, but offer to find out for them.
Your children may never have experienced such strong or dismaying emotions before. Repeatedly reassure them that big
feelings are understandable after a scary experience, but the feelings will pass. Where your insight will be especially
valuable is helping them label their emotions – ‘You normally don’t yell and act angry like this. I think it’s because
of the upset from the earthquake. It stirs us all up.’ ‘You’re feeling sick… and we will certainly take you to the
doctor if it doesn’t get better soon, but sometimes people feel really sick after a fright like the one we have had.’
Allow your kids to express and grieve without minimising or dismissing. Turning their concerns into prayers, or hearing
you echo back to them what they are feeling, can make them feel truly heard and loved, and help them through this time.
Acknowledge things are tough at the moment, but tough times don’t last. Let them see your optimism and confidence.
One of the best things to help kids get over an upset is returning to routine. Bedtime routines help them settle
peacefully – prayers, stories and a debriefing. Kids form routines readily – maybe you could establish some new ones now
to show that life is settling into a predictable pattern.”
Traumatic events can replay over and over in the mind. This will happen when something ‘triggers’ the memory like a
smell, sound or picture. “It helps if parents can give insight into the triggers, by saying things like, ‘That loud
noise reminded you of the earthquake,’” Cowan reflects. “At safe times, get your kids to tell the story of their
experience or to draw pictures. As they relive it in their mind, in your safe presence, add to the picture things that
take away some of the terror – ‘… but you were safe’, ‘… and you handled that well’, ‘… and it was amazing how people
You can usually expect the upset and distress to get less, though there is no ‘timetable’ to recovery for an event like
this. If your children’s behaviour or emotions seem to continue to give problems, then consult your doctor, counsellor