Managing anxiety in children following disasters

Over the last two years everyone has been impacted in some way by COVID-19. Feelings of uncertainty felt during the pandemic may have been compounded by recent world events in Australia and abroad. World events, such as natural disasters and war, can create a level of anxiety in the community and cause feelings of helplessness in adults and children alike. 

We are facing a time of cumulative stress, which can be exhausting and overwhelming. Children and adolescents may have a particularly hard time making sense of what’s happening given their lack of experience, developing brain maturation and inherent suggestibility.

Feelings of worry and unease in this situation are understandable and normal, but knowing how to address it is vital.

Children and young people react, in part, to what they see around them. They are very sensitive to adult and caregiver stress, so taking care of ourselves is integral to taking care of them.  

It is important that we play our part, as adults, to model our behaviours and responses in a sensible and thoughtful way.

It is also important to actively listen to a child’s worries and be proactive in talking to them about the facts. Reassure them that they are safe and help them to understand the situation in a developmentally appropriate manner.

Here are a few helpful strategies and resources to help manage child, adolescent and parental anxiety:

Tune-in

Don’t be afraid to talk to your child about the issues concerning them.

As parents you should offer stability and reassurance during this time. Take a break from continual media coverage, engage children with simple play and regular conversations and continue routines and physical activity at home where possible.  

Mindfulness

Young people who overthink situations or life events are at higher risk of mental health problems. Helping adolescents to practice mindfulness and learning to focus on the present moment will help overcome overriding, negative thoughts. 

Self-care is a daily practice and young people will benefit from positive, everyday habits that build healthy bodies and minds.  Evidence-based apps like HeadspaceSmiling Mind and Calm, both available on Android and Apple stores, provide directed exercises that you can do with your adolescent and on your own. Encourage morning rituals to help focus and direct energy towards meaningful activities, and mindfulness breaks to reset and wind down in the evenings.   

Self-Care

During a safety briefing on a plane you are instructed to put on the oxygen mask first before assisting others, and this is a perfect metaphor for self-care – look after yourself so you can better look after others.

Everybody practices self-care differently, so it is important to find what works for you and create achievable ‘micro-moments’ of self-care. 

ReachOut has some great ideas of how to take care of yourself.

Resources

See the Emerging Minds toolkit for information on how to support children before, during and after a disaster.

If you, or someone you know, is struggling there is help available:

  • Speak to your GP
  • Mental Health Hotline (24 hr) 1800 011 511
  • Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
  • Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36
  • Lifeline 13 11 14
  • Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800
  • Head to Health website