Supporting children and families in the aftermath of disaster - transcript

Welcome everybody my name is Leanne Humphreys and today we’re speaking with Geraldine Mackay who’s an accredited mental health social worker and a clinical specialist here with us at Phoenix Australia.

And we’ll be talking about supporting children, adolescents and families in the aftermath of disaster. This recording is just a brief summary of the relevant points so for those of you who’d like to understand more on the topic, please feel free to explore the materials and the resources on this page.

Hi Geraldine, thanks for joining me today.

Geraldine: Hi Leanne, it’s my pleasure, it’s good to be here with you today.

Leanne: That’s great. Geraldine you’ve got a lot of experience working with children adolescents and families and you’re a couple and family therapist and you’ve also worked for the Department of Defence and you still work in private practice with Open Arms clients. So you also have a really good understanding of the impacts of trauma on individuals across the age range as well as couples and families.

So what are the key messages you’d like practitioners to take away from this recovery toolkit?

Geraldine: Thanks Leanne. I think there’s a few key messages you know being a couple and family therapist I think very sort of systemically and I think working with families is a very sort of systemic way to think and so thinking about family as a system I think
is a really, really important starting point.

You know families are made up of individuals, relationships, and what happens when a disaster occurs is that you know there’s an impact on those relationships and obviously on the family, and also access to the usual supports, and you know activities that they would be involved in. So I think just being aware of those points is an important sort of first start.

And also I suppose what happens within families is, they’re made up obviously of,
children adolescents and adults, and often what happens in the context of families, usually someone will notice a change in a child or a teen and it’s important to just I suppose think about the sorts of reactions that might occur in children and teens and think about it as – on a continuum. So, sometimes there’ll be minimal response but you know other times there might be sort of short to longer term impacts and that those might sort of – the needs of the children and adolescents might change over time. So I think just being being aware of that, is an important point.

I also think that, in terms of sort of, some of the, you know, just to talk a little bit more about some of the responses and experiences that we might see in children and young people you know that’s going to vary according to age, personality type obviously, and also how they were functioning before the disaster occurred, is also, something to keep in mind.

You know we know with young people, they tend to communicate via behavioural sort of signs and signals and so we might notice some changes in behaviour, you know, eating, sleeping, sometimes they might regress developmentally and it’s something to look out for. And if you think about teens and adolescents, they might actually be less cooperative than they were before the disaster, or, you might notice that they’re wanting to sort of spend more time with peers or more time on their own. And then sometimes they also might want to spend more time with their families. So I suppose it’s just being mindful that, parents are the best sort of people to notice change in their, in their children and in each other and in the family more broadly and I suppose just being mindful of some of those changes is another important key message Leanne.

Leanne: Okay, that’s really, you’re talking about families, our parents in particular, as being really good observers. Can you speak to the issue Geraldine of parental functioning as a predictor of outcome for the family and for children?

Geraldine: Yes absolutely Leanne. You know we know that, experiencing a disaster is really sort of – is difficult on an individual level but in turn if we think about parents, you know, it’s really challenging. And even being a parent is challenging at the best of times.

When things are good. Yes. But when a disaster happens, suddenly, you know you’ve got to be there for others, pulling it all together and also trying to look after yourself. Now that can be really, really, hard but the important thing is that how you’re functioning as a parent is a predictor of outcome. Sort of for how your kids are actually going to cope. So it’s a really important message that parents getting the support that they need is a really, really important thing. So that they can look after themselves, look after each other as parents, you know, in the couple relationship, but also look after their family, and the children within that family.

Leanne: Absolutely yes, absolutely important, yes. So Geraldine, what are some of the most useful things that practitioners can do to support families in the aftermath of disaster?

Geraldine: Yes, and you know absolutely I think just helping families just increase their knowledge of what is likely to sort of happen or what are some of the impacts of disaster on that, on that family collective if you like, that just having an awareness of that I think is a very, very, helpful first start. And you know also parents getting the support that they need to be able to function, is also a really important message.
Sometimes in the busyness and the, you know, a bit of chaos that follows.

Leanne: All the rebuilding…Yes, yes.

Geraldine: Yes, that’s hard. And sometimes it’s kind of going back to basics and you
know just being mindful that, I have to look after myself here, maybe I’m not, you know, as solid in myself as I was before the disaster and that’s okay.
But, you know, it’s important that I actually am a good role model, to my children and – and to myself in a sense and look after myself and take the time out to actually get help and support and if a health professional is concerned about you know a parent, encouraging them to seek some professional support so that they can get that input which might actually help them care for others as well as themselves.

Leanne: Absolutely. You mentioned going back to basics and that’s a really important thing to remember isn’t it? So what are some of the kind of the basic things that are recommended there?

Geraldine: Yes, absolutely. Well I think even just, you know, engaging in activities where they’re going to sort of bring some sense of stability into the family because as we know, when a disaster occurs it brings with it a sense of  significant instability and it can be very disruptive for families and I think just being something very sort of low-key, quite simple, keeping up routines like family dinners, as simple as that, can be a really comforting and containing thing to just keep going. Keep  it up even when it’s hard to do so.

Leanne: I really like that contrast that you’re making there. Disaster can bring instability so actually what we’re doing is, trying to reintroduce some stability for that family unit. I think that’s really, it’s a really helpful way of thinking about it.

Geraldine: Yes absolutely, its so important Leanne, and I think also just communication is really, really important and you know building, sort of spending time on building relationships. So just really being mindful of making time for each other, for relationships, because they are so important and it helps people, I think, to just share their experiences and stories and be included you know in the sort of recovery stage in particular and maintaining those kind of social connections as well so the family’s not isolated.

Leanne: Yes, yes.

Geraldine: And yeah, and just being, I suppose, looking for sort of those opportunities  to reconnect and sort of you know I suppose looking at getting external support if, if things don’t feel right.

Leanne: Terrific, terrific. So Geraldine, just to summarise, so you’re recommending that people, that practitioners support families to increase their understanding of the impacts of disaster so that they understand the behaviours that they can see happening around them in the family. You’re talking about, thinking about, even some low key strategies to enhance stability and routine. You were emphasising communication and relationship building, and the importance of really being mindful about engaging socially. You know seeking out social connections, being a really good indicator or predictor of outcome in the aftermath of disaster.

That’s really, really, helpful. Thanks very much Geraldine.

For people who are watching this, they might want to explore the written content on this page in a little bit more detail. We’d certainly encourage you to do that and Geraldine’s provided a range of written material and resources that you can explore. Thanks very much for your time Geraldine.