Cyclone Debbie was an unwanted visitor during our recent family holiday on Hamilton Island. Fortunately the hotel we were staying at was rated for a category 5 cyclone and well prepared with excellent staff, making the whole experience of lashing rain and 260km winds awe-inspiring, but not frightening. However when walking around the island and talking to people we met it became clear that for some the experience was 24 hours of uncertainty and at times terror as roofs were blown off and windows shattered.
I was talking with a friend the day after the cyclone about how to help children who have been acutely traumatised by such events.
Calm the reptile brain
Safety is the obvious first step to achieve. Their reptile brain has been aroused by the actual survival threat they have experienced. Even if the danger has actually passed, their immaturity means they may still perceive they are in danger. Or if their parent or others around them are scared still, they will assume the danger has not passed. Removing the danger as quickly as possible and calming yourself and those around you will give them confidence they are now safe enough.
Connect with the mammal
Once safe, the next step is for your child to connect with the important others in their life. The way we get through suffering, grief and disappointment is with each other. Many things in life (like cyclones, earthquakes, fires, death, etc) are difficult with no obvious reason or solution. The way we get through the absurdities of life is with each other. It is not about what is right or wrong, but about sharing the pain and doing it together. Validate them and their experience, and offer yourself. Now is not the time for correction…now is the time for validation. Once they feel heard and understood, it is time to offer the third step.
Converse with the human
When they are ready, they will likely want to talk about their experience. If they don’t want to, you can validate their reticence, and simply ask again a bit later. As a family you can model conversations with the other parent and with others outside the family. There are only two rules for a good conversation…a desire to share your own experience playfully, and being curious about the other person’s experience. And when the conversation is with a child, it is much more about them than you. If the discussion about the events brings up strong emotions, don’t try to force the conversation to continue. Validate their difficulty, and go back to calming and connecting before re-trying the conversation.
Sometimes the above doesn’t repair the rupture of the terrible experience. If you or a family member is stuck in the distress of the event, getting assistance early may be useful.