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Helping young people (rangatahi) affected by the Edgecumbe flooding

9 April 2017

Children have their own ways of dealing with trauma according to their stage of development.

Often their response is not what may be expected and may not show up for some time. Parents and others often worry and frequently are not sure of the best way to help them.

The whanau is the most important part of a child's life. Parents give them their security and confidence. What trauma means to children depends to a large extent on how their parents react to it. Often this is more important than what happens to the children themselves.

Children think about things a great deal even when they're not talking about them, but they can only put them in perspective with adults' help.

Parents can help their children by sorting out their own reactions and feelings. Don't be surprised if children's reactions seem out of keeping with their experiences - they may be reacting to whanau members' distress. Children (even infants and toddlers) always know more than adults give them credit for. They're aware of many things they can't put into words for us.

Children need to make sense of things that happen. They often don't have all the facts and their thinking is not yet mature so they use imagination to fill the gaps.

Often this results in misunderstandings, which they may keep to themselves, especially if it's frightening. What they imagine is usually more frightening than what really happened.

The rangatahi's experience

Reassurance is important, but doesn't help until the child has an accurate idea of the event and its causes, and their misconceptions have been corrected. Parents also need to find out what reassurance the child needs. This isn't always what children ask about at first. Children don't usually tell adults about these things because they may feel too self-conscious, are afraid or can't put them into words. This can lead to misunderstanding or conflict between adults and children. Children's reactions may appear at the time of crisis or later. Sometimes they manage very well when the trauma is in everyone's mind and only later start to worry, become difficult or feel as though they can't handle their responsibilities. It can take months for things to build up to the point where parents or teachers realise a child may be having problems or needs extra help. By this time the trauma may seem less significant to adults. It's common for children to hold back their own needs and difficulties until they sense their parents are over the worst and it feels safe for them to relax and start reacting.

Our rangatahi may react like this:

These are some of the changes that can be seen in infants and children under stress:

  •  sleep problems, nightmares, reluctance to go to bed or get up
  • irritability, uncooperative, listless or bored
  • clinging to family or familiar things, needing objects for security
  • unable to cope with change or ordinary problems
  • changes in relationships with parents, becoming more demanding, possessive, withdrawn, or uncommunicative
  • relationships with brothers, sisters and peers become more difficult. Often there is an increase in conflict, competition, aggression or withdrawal within these relationships
  • preoccupation with the trauma - wanting to talk about it, playing it out, wanting to see where it happened
  • excessive concern for others - holding back their needs to protect adults and anxiety about loved ones
  • reduced school performance, concentration or ability to play constructively
  • overactive behaviour, restlessness or dissatisfaction
  • exaggerated reactions to small crises. This may be an expression of their distress about the incident which often they don't fully understand. 

How can I help?

  • It's better to tell children what has happened. Giving them the facts (but without unnecessary detail) helps prevent their imagination taking over.
  • Encourage them to express emotions. Fear and sadness are their way of coming to terms with what has happened. Hold them or stay with them, offer support while they are upset and then talk about it afterwards.
  • Keep communication open by asking questions to find out what they are thinking or imagining. Tell them how adults feel and what the actions of adults under stress mean. This will prevent children blaming themselves.
  • Reassure them about the future, especially the small details of life which are such an important part of their world.
  • Encourage them to continue to be children, to play, explore and laugh when they want to, even though the adults may not feel like it. Children are often able to take their minds off the trauma better than adults.
  • Maintain routine and familiarity to help children see that life is secure and predictable.
  • Reduce change of any type to a minimum. When change is necessary, take time to prepare children for it.
  • Keep them informed of how their recovery is going and what to expect.
  • Don't make this the time to correct bad habits, and don't overreact to unusual misdeeds or bad behaviour. Talk about the behaviour with the child - they may need to let their tension out somehow.
  • Give children time to sort themselves out with your support. Don't expect it to be over quickly.
  • Keep track of the child. Remember what they say and do, and try not to let lasting changes in temperament and behaviour creep up without noticing.
  • Make time for just being together. Take time out and re-establish recreational activities and outings as soon as you can. Pleasure is an important part of healing.
  • Take all their concerns, complaints and questions seriously. They may be trying to express something important which they don't have the right words for.
  • Parents need to get support to work through their own reactions, so they can help their child. 

If you need any further support or assistance with your rangatahi then please call Voyagers on 080033306.

Last updated: April 12, 2017