All children and families are exposed to or affected by disasters or tragic events that happen locally, nationally or in different parts of the world. Many Australians are affected by natural disasters such as bushfires, severe storms, earthquakes, cyclones, droughts, floods; and tragic events like violence or accidents in your local area, in familiar places like holiday locations or disasters that happen far away. Even through brief exposure to images of frightening events on the television and other forms of media, children can become distressed, fearful and believe that the world is a scary place. Increased media coverage and discussion in the community, schools and at home can also raise the alarm for children. Although children can show great resilience, disasters and tragic events can be scary and distressing for them and can affect children in different ways than adults. It can help for parents and carers to be prepared for these disasters and tragic events, understand how they might affect children and what they can do after the event occurs.
Being psychologically prepared for disasters
It is important to not only physically prepare for disasters or tragic events (e.g. creating a fire plan or a household emergency plan) but also psychologically. The best way to enhance children’s ability to cope is to help them have a sense of safety and security, and to help them feel more in control of their fears. An easy way to remember how to be psychologically prepared for a disaster or tragic event is using the AIM model. The AIM model was developed by the Australian Psychological Society and helps prepare for disasters using a three step process:
Step 1: Anticipate the psychological reactions
When people understand their usual reactions to stress, they can learn ways to manage stress better when it happens.
- Think about how a child usually reacts to stress. What other frightening experiences have they had?
- Discuss with them what it might be like in an emergency and how they might react.
- Help them to understand that although these reactions are very understandable, sometimes they can get in the way of thinking clearly and acting in a helpful way in an emergency.
Step 2: Identify feelings and thoughts
In highly stressful situations, the body usually shows signs of anxiety, such as a racing heart, feeling sick, tense muscles or being short of breath. These bodily reactions to stress usually trigger stressful thoughts such as “I can’t cope” or “I’m so afraid”.
- Help children to notice what is happening to their body and the changes that tell them that they are feeling scared.
- Help them to put names on these bodily feelings (“When I get butterflies in my stomach, it can sometimes mean I am feeling scared”).
- Show them how to identify unhelpful thoughts they might be having that are adding to their fears (“Something bad is going to happen to us”).
- Remind children that strong bodily sensations and frightening thoughts are normal, but there are ways to manage them so they don’t get out of control and stop us from doing what is helpful.
Step 3: Manage responses to the stress
Children can learn two simple strategies to help them to feel more in control.
- Teach children to slow down their breathing to help calm anxiety reactions (“Imagine you’re breathing out like a sleepy dog lying in the sun”). When breathing out slowly, teach children to say to themselves “It’s OK, breathe easy”.
- Teach children to replace frightening thoughts with more helpful ones (“This might be scary but there are some things that my family can do to help us stay safe”; “We have a plan of what to do and we have practised the plan, so that should really help”).
When children know what to do in an emergency situation, they will often feel calmer. Make sure your whole household practises both your physical plan and your psychological preparations so you all know what to do and can all feel more in control. It can also be helpful for children to help with practical tasks as part of your household plan when preparing for natural disasters, such as taking glasses of water to family members as they are packing and clearing everything up. This can help distract children, give them a sense of achievement and provide a means of control, which can be helpful to reduce anxiety.