Helping kids cope with traumatic events: Garden Route fires

The Garden Route fires took everyone by surprise.  After a trauma, it’s completely natural to be in a state of shock and disbelief.  Children often experience trauma differently, as they are more sensitive and less able to express their feelings and needs.  They need our ongoing reassurance and support – even if their houses were ultimately safe, yet had to evacuate suddenly and/or witness the scale of the fire, or destruction of land and homes.  All children in these communities have been impacted in some way, and for many their entire sense of safety in the world can feel different or shattered because their whole community has experienced such a large shock.

During traumatic events, the brain goes into an adaptive ‘emergency mode’ (i.e. flight or fight mode) –releasing stress hormones (like adrenaline and cortisol) to cope with whatever comes.   After the immediate danger is over however, it can be hard to convince the body that it can relax again and that the danger is truly over.  Add to this the fact that children are more sensitive and don’t express themselves well, so a range of behaviours, including sleep and appetite changes can be expected. Understand that these are all normal reactions to an abnormally stressful situation and these changes may last for a few weeks.  With your on-going and responsive support, and attentively addressing their needs, these reactions often disappear and children recover fully.

Photo: Ewald Stander courtesy of Business Day

Here are four simple principles to help children cope :

  • Ensure safety – do everything to ensure physical safety, constantly reassure them that they are safe, establish routines again as soon as possible.
  • Talk about it / help them let their feelings out – they often need support in getting out their feelings.  Listen and answer questions but avoid forcing them to talk – contradictions in re-telling the event is normal (use drawings, stories or metaphors).
  • Normalising symptoms – explain that what they are going through (e.g. nightmares/anxiousness) is normal after such a sudden, unexpected and dangerous experience.  Symptoms are never a sign of weakness; should be taken seriously and need time for healing like any physical injury.
  • Get more help – trauma counseling may often be needed (depending on the intensity of the trauma, the child’s previous traumatic events, their age and ability to process it healthily with your support and your response and well-being). If your child’s changed behaviour worsens or intensifies over time, or delayed reactions show up, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can occur.

Try to remember that what children find stressful, and how they cope, differs from us.  Sometimes the smallest or strangest aspect of the experience may have been their biggest concern.  Watch them, listen and above all be patient.

If you know someone affected, reach out and support them.  Even if you do not live in that area it has affected all South Africans. We can always use these tools to help our kids deal with any kind of trauma in their lives.

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Carol Surya

Carol Surya

Carol Surya, author, psychologist, game developer and workshop facilitator. Her practical parenting book, ParentMagic – Raising Kids stems from  experience gained over the last 20 years working with children and their parents worldwide. You will find her company, Raising Kids Positively on Jozikids and Kznkids

3 Responses

  1. Thank you Gillian – yes indeed. This is a massive topic and so very much to say. Let’s keep the conversation and articles coming.
    I agree there are so many valuable body based approaches that need to be taught to children (and they parents).

  2. This is very useful Carol. I do think that trauma needs to be addressed in a wider context and continuously. Children experience trauma from birth and are continually gathering trauma. It sits in the body until it can be processed or cleared through body therapies. Young children cannot process on an intellectual level – not because they are not bright enough, but because this does not belong at this stage of development and intellectual talk /head understanding works via the nervous system not the rhythmic /heart/lung system.
    This is a huge topic and all parents have or do traumatise children without meaning to. – the look, that tone of voice, overheard arguments between parents or parents and grandparents…or that “get in the car or i will leave you behind!”
    instead of the truth “mommy is tired and wants to go home” or after venting say ” I love you and will never leave you. but Moms tired and hungry. ” we are all under stress and often say what an adult can process or healthily react to, though for the young ones, it sinks into unconscious and from there , can effect their life in a disturbing manner.
    I suggest Body Talk as it helps clear trauma from the body, directed by the individuals body itself.
    Also TRE (trauma release excersizes ) can be done by children. Parents need to do it too and reduce their own trauma build up and thereby help their children. Each member of the family needs to shift, not only the one who is displaying symptoms.

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