Cyclone Gabrielle: How to talk to children about traumatic events

Cyclone Gabrielle: How to talk to children about traumatic events
How do we talk with our children about the recent traumatic events affecting the world when we battle to comprehend the horror ourselves?

Natural disasters such as Cyclone Gabrielle which swept through New Zealand’s North Island, devastating the Hawkes Bay and Tairāwhiti regions have left many in the community reeling.

For children, addressing their fears and concerns about events that take place in their lives, and around them is necessary to help them cope. But how do we do this without causing elevated anxiety and depression?

Everyone in your family including your children will likely have different ways of dealing with traumatic events.

Things to consider about your child’s age group:

Pre-school and toddlers

Very young children can confuse the facts with their imagination and become overwhelmed, unable to sort distant threats from immediate threats.

School-age children

This age group is able to understand the differences between real events and fantasy. However, they may need help with managing information and ideas around them.


Teenagers may be interested in the politics of the events and feel they are required to take action or become involved in charitable activity. They may become reflective and relate the events to their own lives, or re-examine their lives and interests. Conversely, they may become immune to the repetitive nature of events taking place around them.

How can I tell what my child might need?

It’s not always possible to read what your child is feeling and thinking. It’s important to recognise that your child may not want to talk about how they are feeling right away. Clues that may arise to let you know your child is in distress are: regressive behaviour (reverting to younger behaviour), nightmares, and an excessive interest in violence.

“Contrary to parents’ fears, talking about violent acts will not increase a child’s fear. Having children keep scared feelings to themselves is more damaging than open discussion.” – Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D, NYU Child Study Center

How do I start a conversation?

You may like to start by asking your child or children what they have heard or seen and if they have any questions. It’s important to avoid going into detail about the issue until you understand what their key concerns and fears are.

Discussions with older children may offer opportunities to talk about cultural differences, qualities of tolerance and compassion, non-violent solutions and how these may relate to issues in everyday life. Be sure to pay attention to non-verbal cues like facial expressions and body language, as this can help you with knowing how much or little information they can cope with at any given time.

Follow the lead of your child; consider your child’s age group and temperament. Find out what information has been given at school so you are able to coordinate messaging. Their teacher may also be aware of what, if any, are your child’s concerns.



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