From fires to floods, death and disease, we’ve already been hit with a lot of bad news this year. And as hard as it can be for us to process it all, it can take more of a toll on our kids.
And though we’re holding out hope that our bad run will end with 2020, the bushfire season here in Australia is only just beginning again and there’s no telling what else – in terms of the pandemic, the economy, the environment, our international relations – will be around the corner.
It’s for this very reason that the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) is encouraging GPs to undertake new mental health training to help children who have experienced disasters. It comes as GPs across the nation are dealing with increasing mental health presentations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and last summer’s devastating bushfires, and with the next fire season approaching.
A recent Monash University study found the COVID-19 pandemic was having a profound impact on children’s mental health, with data from general practices in Victoria and New South Wales showing a spike in anxiety, depression and eating disorders among those aged up to 14 years since the beginning of the pandemic.
“In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and summer bushfires, and with the next fire season fast approaching, this training is very timely,” says RACGP Spokesperson Dr Penny Burns. “The twin health crisis of the bushfires and pandemic have had a huge impact on the mental health of patients across Australia, particularly children. It’s vital that we can provide timely and appropriate mental health support in times of need – especially in the aftermath of disasters when families and communities are struggling to pick up the pieces.”
In addition to the important role that GPs can play in helping our children navigate their mental health concerns, there are certain things we, as parents, can do as well.
Bad news is, sadly, unavoidable, but while it can be overwhelming in the short term – impacting our capacity to work, play and even function – we can typically find a healthy way to tolerate or integrate it into our lives.
“There is no right or wrong way to grieve, only healthy and unhealthy,” says child psychologist and mum-of-two, Sarah Padbury. “Grief is like waves in the ocean; sometimes it’s small and gentle, while other times it’s a tsunami that feels like it’s going to crush us. But just like a wave, the feeling and intensity always passes.”
We must tolerate the uncomfortable and sad feelings in order to move forward, explains Sarah. When we don’t find a healthy way to process bad news, depression and anxiety can appear in the long term.
But, what happens when there isn’t just one piece of bad news?
“As a parent I have noticed that the 6 o’clock news is no longer appropriate for primary school children,” says Sarah. “Once the most popular dinner time TV show, it now contains very raw and distressing footage that is difficult for children to process.
“It’s important for children to know what is happening around the world and at home, but the footage is often not appropriate for younger children – talk to your children instead. They are aware of the issues going on around them, so encourage them to ask questions. We can’t shield them from the bad news of the world, but we can deliver it sensitively and appropriately.”
While children will deal with bad news in different ways, Sarah says there may be signs your child is struggling.
“Look out for sudden changes like difficulty sleeping, decreased appetite and increased aggression or withdrawal,” says Sarah. “In younger children, a regression in toilet training may be a sign they are feeling very stressed, while older children may have difficulty paying attention.”
As parents, we have intuitive ways of managing our children’s mental health but sometimes we feel like we’ve run out of tools. If your child’s changed behaviours are having a significant impact on their life or don’t abate once the crisis is over, it may be worth seeking professional help – even in the form of your child’s teacher.
“Teachers are an amazing source of information about how your child is travelling and whether additional support may be needed,” says Sarah.
But much like fitting an oxygen mask in an aeroplane, there may be times you need to help yourself, too – especially when impacted by loss or disaster.
“You are not being the best parent you can be if you are struggling to manage your own mental health,” says Sarah. “Parenting is hard and messy at the best of times and sometimes we all need support. Our kids are looking to us as their example on how to cope.”
Dealing with the loss of a hero
Children cannot escape their childhood unscathed by grief and loss. But parents whose children have lost a favourite sporting hero or celebrity have a great opportunity to model healthy ways of grieving.
“In the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death, it was lovely to hear children remember all the great things he did for the sport and what a great father he was,” says Sarah. “We can help children by commemorating lost loved ones, through planting a tree or flower or putting a picture in a frame. It’s also important to acknowledge that children may feel an attachment to a person they don’t actually know, and can feel quite overwhelmed.”
Dealing with disaster
“Having lost our home in Black Saturday in 2009, I have seen the impact of devastation on children and young people first hand,” says Sarah. “I noticed that children will look for an example from their parents and loved ones – when the adults around them are struggling to cope, the children will too, and when parents can remain calm, the children will be too.
“Talk to your children and tell them what’s happening; they are more scared of the things they don’t know,” says Sarah.
Dealing with the loss of a friend
Needless to say, losing a friend is incredibly difficult for children to process – children often struggle with the finality of death, and video games where the characters ‘re-spawn’ or ‘re-launch’ confuse them even further.
“Whether another child has died from an illness or accident, children will need age-appropriate facts to make sense of – or they may assume they will suffer the same fate,” says Sarah. “I worked with the family of a nine-year-old who died from neuroblastoma, where the first sign was her eye turning. The poor optometrist in town had to deal with numerous children all convinced there was something wrong with their eyes, too.”
Always give your children the opportunity to ask lots of questions and express their emotions. Reassure them it’s ok to feel sad and help them organise and make sense of big emotions.
The Whole Heart by Jacqueline Henry
They say only time can mend a broken heart but what if you can’t wait? The little girl had passed Harry’s Repair Shop many times, but never had a reason to go in – she had no old clock or broken radio. She had never owned anything needing repair and the store had always seemed such an odd little place. This beautifully illustrated hardcover picture book, written by a Brisbane journalist, tells the endearing tale of a little girl grieving the loss of a loved one. $24.95, www.thewholeheart.com.au
This post was updated on December 8, 2020.