How to maintain a child’s sense of safety and security

The bushfires have devastated communities right across Australia. Everyone’s sense of safety and the predictability of their world has been threatened. It can be particularly difficult for children to grasp what is happening. As parents and carers, it is hard to know the best way to respond to children’s real fears and anxieties.

We spoke to our experts Mark Donovan, Clinic Director at UOW Northfields Psychology Clinic @ Early Start, and Professor Marc de Rosnay, Academic Director Early Start, who shared some useful tips on how we can help children during these difficult times.

“The most important thing we can do for our children at the moment is to help restore a sense of security, safety and normality,” Mark Donovan said. “We can do this by providing more attention and affection to our children, and helping them to notice and connect with all the good things around them. We also need to make sure that we’re giving them messages that everything will eventually be OK, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.”

With the media dominated by scenes of disaster, Mark Donovan says we need to protect young children from seeing a large amount of distressing imagery that they can’t easily understand.

“It’s also really important to validate your child’s concerns,” Mr Donovan said. “Help normalise their fears and concerns. Explain it’s OK for them to feel however they are feeling. And remember that children will often express their feelings through their behaviour.”

“The most important thing we can do for our children at the moment is to help restore a sense of security, safety and normality.” 

Take more time to connect, play and listen to your children.

Professor Marc de Rosnay suggests taking more time to connect, play and listen to your children. “Don’t underestimate the power of conversation and play,” he said “These activities are integral for children to digest difficult experiences and reformulate them into something they can grasp or understand.

“It’s important to consider the language you are using – try to take out the panic and fear. Use descriptive and procedural language to help give children a structure to understand what is happening and how we are responding to it as families and communities. It also never hurts to slow down your communications and allow for lots of questions. Processing all this information will take children time and they may come back to you days, weeks or even months later for more information.”

It’s important for caregivers to look after themselves first. It can be hard for parents, who are understandably scared themselves to help children feel calm during a crisis.

“Children learn from modelling and social information, so try and be calm and conscious of your own behaviours as much as possible,” Professor de Rosnay said. “Take time to observe your child and be perceptive about their behaviours. Are they experiencing more tantrums than usual? Bedwetting? Sleep issues? Clingy? These could be signs of distress. Seek professional help if you can’t get through issues that arise from these events.”

“Re-establishing normal daily routines around mealtimes and bedtimes is really important. Families that have been displaced will need to work on creating a ‘new normal’ for their family” 

For those families directly affected by a disaster, Mr Donovan says it’s important to establish new daily routines as much as possible, and to take the time to restore your routines once the crisis has passed.

“Re-establishing normal daily routines around mealtimes and bedtimes is really important. Families that have been displaced will need to work on creating a ‘new normal’ for their family,” he said.

Above all we need patience, time and confidence that normality will resume.

“Focus on resilience, things like ‘we will get through this’ and ‘scary things happen in life but we can and will get through this”. Professor de Rosnay said.

Top tips for restoring a sense of safety and security in children:

  1. Provide more attention, affection and hugs to help restore a sense of security and safety
  2. Take time to connect. Play and listen to children to help them express their feelings and to help normalise what is happening as well as to correct any misunderstandings
  3. Re-establish daily routines around mealtimes, bedtimes, etc.
  4. Protect from over-exposure to media
  5. Look out for changes to the child’s usual play and behaviours – these may be signs of distress
  6. Look after your own needs – children will cope and thrive when their caregivers themselves feel safe, calm, connected, capable and hopeful

The following are free services available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Mental Health Line – 1800 011 511
Lifeline – 13 11 14
Kids Helpline Official – 1800 55 1800
Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636
MensLine Australia – 1300 789 978

Research = Experiences

Play is one of the most powerful ways to learn. That’s why all our experiences are informed by early childhood researchers from UOW.

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