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Anniversaries of Natural Disasters - Anxiety Risks for Children

With anniversaries of the devastating 2011 summer of disasters returning tragic images to our screens, parents should consider the impact on children of repetition of these traumatic events.  

Australian Council on Children and the Media Vice President and child psychologist Dr C Glenn Cupit, says “parents would be wise to avoid exposing children to replays of footage of disasters.”  Although children may not have physically experienced the traumatic event, exposure to disaster-related media “can leave children with lasting memories, the recall of which can create anxiety and stress.” Subjected to repeated exposure, children are more likely to develop a heightened level of general anxiety about the world and a specific fear relevant to the particular disaster exposure: “for instance if the child is seeing an earthquake, then they would be likely to be left with … anxiety about whether they themselves would be caught up in an earthquake” explains Dr Cupit.

New research* by University of South Australia researcher Toni Deer, has revealed that while children may be affected by footage of disasters, they may not talk to their parents about what they are feeling or thinking. Ms Deer’s study, conducted with a group of five to seven year olds, investigated the potential impact that a range of natural and other disastrous events had on the children’s fears. Seven out of the top eight phenomena the children described as ‘very scary’ were disastrous events, with the four major disasters televised in 2011 all featured including (in order) earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones and floods.

Children only reported these fears after being reminded of them through a picture presentation, suggesting that although children found these events to be particularly scary, those fears may lie dormant in a child’s mind until re-exposed to images or symbols of a disaster

Looking for Signs of a Child’s Anxiety

There are many cues for parents that might signal a return of their child’s anxiety about disaster - Dr Cupit emphasises that children respond to fear in different ways. For example an outgoing, active child may become very still and intensely interested in what they are seeing on television, indicating they may be “under emotional load from what they are watching.” Children may suffer from bad dreams, a common sign that a child may not be coping, or they may act out disasters in their play behaviour**.

Children better able to cope with disaster coverage may articulate questions on how they might be affected. Questions like “Could that happen to us?” signal that your child is beginning to look at their fears in a rational way. However, children’s questions may also be more subtle, so it’s important for parents to spend time talking to their children about how they’re feeling and give them the opportunity to discuss their concerns.

Talking to Your Child About Disaster

Dr Cupit reminds parents that unresolved childhood fears and anxiety can have an impact on emotional wellbeing in later life. Parents can use positive strategies to help their children cope with any renewed fear or anxiety about disaster:

1.    Be Present with Your Child and Be a Role Model: Try to be with your child if they are exposed to disaster-related media. Your child will take cues from you about how to respond “If you're dealing with it calmly, if you are expressing your feelings about how sad something is, that tells the child how to respond”.

2.    Create Opportunities for Your Child to Express Feelings: If your child likes to paint or draw, create the opportunity for art and be prepared to discuss any fears that may be represented. Other ways to indirectly prompt your children to talk may include imaginative play or creative writing.

3.    Refocus Your Child’s Attention: Look for and focus on positive messages. “Stories such as communities helping each other and people rebuilding their lives show children that there is a resolution to these … disasters”.

4.    Physical Contact: Give your children a comfortable, secure base to watch this type of footage. Physical contact from a parent or sibling can be very comforting for a child and reaffirm their safety.  

For information about how to care for a child after a traumatic event, please refer to this earlier happychild article.

If you have concerns about your own or your children’s emotional wellbeing, please talk to your medical health professional for individual and expert advice.

Following are a list of additional resources for help in Australia and New Zealand:

Kids Helpline – 1800 551 800
Lifeline – 13 11 14
Parentline – 13 22 89
Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement – 1300 664 786

New Zealand
What’sUp – 0800 9428787
Lifeline – 0800 543354
Parent Help – 0800 568856

* This researched is unpublished so we may report further on this or add a link to the final research once published.

** It is normal for young children to act out their feelings after a natural disaster event, or after being re-exposed to media coverage during play. Although excessive 'acting out' may indicate anxiety carers can also help by reminding children to do things such as rebuilding Lego or bringing in Lego  police for example, to help fix up the damage.