The devastation and trauma experienced by individuals across Aotearoa at the hands of recent weather events are hard to comprehend. Whether you have been directly affected by these events, have or are experiencing a different trauma, it is helpful to be aware of the immediate impacts, and how to respond accordingly.
The experience of adverse events—whether one-off or ongoing during one’s life—can have far-reaching emotional, spiritual, physical and mental impacts on individual and collective wellbeing. These experiences are generally understood in terms of trauma, which over the last few years has become more widely researched as we attempt to understand the most effective practices around supporting those who are affected by these experiences.
“While trauma has many definitions, typically in psychology it refers to an experience of serious adversity or terror—or the emotional or psychological response to that experience.”1
When we encounter an adverse or stressful experience our brain and body go through a series of physiological changes. Our brain triggers its alarm system, activating a fight, flight or freeze response. For example, our heart rate and breathing speed up to increase the oxygen and blood going to our muscles. This alarm system can be helpful as it prepares us to deal with immediate danger. However, when we experience trauma, we can have an exaggerated and prolonged stress response. This lowers our capacity to regulate internal feelings such as fear, anger and anxiety and we spend a lot of extra energy trying to regain some equilibrium and a state of rest.2
An important basic human need is to feel safe and secure in our environment, so when our brain continues to tell us that we are unsafe our behaviours become more automatic and instinctually driven. If people around us, or we as parents, react to these behaviours with punishment, frustration, shame or anger this makes the brain feel less safe and more of the same behaviours can occur.
People’s reactions to trauma are complex and varied. Dr Mona Delahooke outlines some of the immediate signs:
Signs of trauma in adults.
You may find that your threshold for triggers is lower than before. You may become upset, angry, or activated more easily and feel the urge to discipline your children more harshly than ever before. You may feel sad, depleted, or scattered in your thinking. You may find that your productivity, organizational skills, and energy just aren’t [what] they were a year or two ago.
Signs of trauma in children.
They may exhibit more ‘challenging’ behaviours than before. They probably feel more need to move their bodies. That means more fidgeting, hitting, shoving, talking out of turn, and less auditory receptivity. Kids may find it more difficult to pay attention and stay on task. Some children will disengage, lingering on the periphery of the room or playground. We need to be extra aware of those children because it’s healthier for the nervous system to want to move than to want to disconnect. We need to see these children’s stress.3
Here are some more signs of immediate and delayed reactions to trauma.
If we understand how trauma works—triggering the stress response of fight, flight, or freeze—then this gives context to the behaviours and why they are occurring. Reframing allows us to have a little more empathy for ourselves and our children in how we respond. This is known as trauma-informed practices, whereby problematic behaviours are treated as a result of traumatic experiences, rather than addressing them as wilful and punishable actions.1 Consider reframing from ‘my child won’t’ to ‘my child can’t’, due to the fight or flight response.
What can help?
- Creating safety through warm, connected relationships is key to helping people heal from trauma. Positive relationships increase hormones (oxytocin) that are responsible for calming our nervous system after stress.4
- Build predictability and safety through sticking to routines. These routines may be new ones that you need to create after a traumatic event, but they help us to focus on what we can control.
- Build an awareness of what your own body needs and listen to it, this helps promote healing for yourself. Do you need to move, sing, have a cup of tea, lie down, or take a micro-break? As parents, we juggle a lot of demands and often we feel our needs must come last, but if you look after yourself this directly benefits those around you. You are a mirror to your children, so if they can see that you are calm then they will start to feel this calm too.
- You may have a range of emotions and feel agitated and out of control, try to recognise this without shame, guilt, or judgment and lower your expectations of yourself. These are natural responses to what you are going through.
- Look at your child’s behaviour as a sign of what may be happening underneath and try to reframe it in your mind as a stress response. It may be helpful to ask yourself, does the person have behavioural control right now? If they do not, then their behaviour is a survival instinct. Try to approach your child with compassion, and a softened voice, look and posture, trying to reassure rather than disciplining them.3
- Your child may not be able to access, use or learn coping skills while still in a stress response which shows that at this time, they need more co-regulation. This is when, as adults, we help cue the child into what their body needs—do they need a hug, a snack, to stim, or take a break to recharge? Over time this will help them listen to what their own body needs.5
If you need further support for yourself or for others:
- Call your general practice, after-hours GP practice or Healthline on 0800 611 116
- Free-call or text 1737 to talk to a trained counsellor
For further information:
- Support for disabled people affected by Cyclone Gabrielle
- Supporting autistic children through floods and natural disasters
- Mental health advice for coping after a traumatic event
- How to survive trauma reminders
- How research is helping our children after the earthquakes
- Traumatic events help: autistic children | Raising Children Network
- Harvard University. (2023). ACES and toxic stress: Frequently asked questions. Center on the Developing Child. Link here.
- Imad, M. (2021). Transcending adversity: trauma-informed educational development. Educational Development in the Time of Crises, 39(3). Link here.
- Delahooke, M. (2021a). Finding our way back: How trauma-responsive practices can help us face this moment. Mona Delahooke. Link here.
- Echo. (2017). What do I do? Trauma-informed support for children. Echo Parenting. Link here.
- Delahooke, M. (2021b). Why your child can’t access coping skills when they need them most. Mona Delahooke. Link here.