Dreamworld tragedy: How to support children through traumatic events

Source: AAP

Following the deaths of four people in an accident at Dreamworld on the Gold Coast, a children's psychologist offers insight into how to support young people who witnessed or are affected by the tragedy.

Four adults lost their lives in an accident on the Thunder River Rapids raft-based ride at the Dreamworld theme park on the Gold Coast.

Those who were on the same ride and bystanders, including many young people, witnessed the tragedy, while others have expressed grief that such a horrific accident could occur at a place that is so often identified with joy.

Tony FiztGerald, the manager of Kids Helpline, a national youth mental health service, said normal feelings of anxiety and sadness in children, who either witnessed or have heard about this incident, might become exacerbated by ongoing media coverage.

“The 24-hour news cycle means it is almost impossible to shield young people from coverage on television, in newspapers, on the internet and in social media,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.

Ms Jane Nursey, a clinical psychologist at the University of Melbourne who specialises in young people’s mental health, said children or adolescents who were witness to the tragedy, and those who heard about it, should know that everyone reacts differently to traumatic events and that’s okay.

“Essentially any reaction is a normal trauma reaction,” Ms Nursey told SBS.

“For some children, it might just be water off a duck's back and it just doesn’t really affect them too much, and other children might be severely affected by it and be quite distressed by it.”

However, one of the most important messages to convey after an incident such as this is that humans are resilient, she added.

“We would expect most people who bore witness or even heard about this, that they might have some intense emotional reaction or some sort of emotional reaction to it in the short-term.

"But most people are resilient and those reactions will calm themselves down with support from family and friends over a relatively short period of time.”

She said only a few young people might experience ongoing negative reactions and that this was more likely to occur in those who had experienced previous traumatic events. They may require further support from their families or professional assistance.

How to help counsel children who witness tragic events

Ms Nursey said that it was important to realise that children, even very young ones, might be upset to have seen or learned about a horrific event, and might fear that people close them could also die in such ways.

This anxiety may manifest in a variety of ways, including by becoming a bit more irritable, getting upset more easily, and not sleeping and eating as well as they usually do.

Other children may experience a sense of guilt and shame.

It would not be unusual for children between the ages of around two to 14 or so to have thoughts that they may be responsible for the distressing event.

"There can be some sense of shame associated with ‘why am I having such a strong intense emotional response’, not understanding the meaning of that, not understanding that that’s part of a normal reaction to bearing witness or being close to these events happening.”

The best place to start to support children through horrific events is within the family, she said.

“That would mean a lot of holding and cuddling and allowing them to sort of be a bit more clingy perhaps than they have in the past.”

It’s important to talk about a distressing event with your children and let them constructively express themselves to acknowledge their feelings and help them comprehend it, she added.

“Learning to manage, recognise and manage our emotions is a lifelong task to some extent, but it’s certainly an important part of development through childhood.”

Ms Nursey stressed she was not in a position to provide advice to any youth or their families connected to the victims of this particular accident.

In a more general sense, caregivers can help children who have lost loved ones to accidents by providing them with a sense of safety and comfort, she said.

It helps to give children time to process their grief, but they can also be supported by getting back to regular routines, such as school and extra-curricular activities, sooner rather than later.

“As much as you can keep a normal-life routine around you, that helps to instill that sense of safety and security that otherwise isn’t potentially there.”

While family is a great source of support for children who are grieving loved ones, if they too are struggling to deal with their own responses then Ms Nursey advises “seeking professional support may be important for all family members”.

Flowers are laid outside the Dreamworld Theme Park on the Gold Coast
Flowers are laid outside the Dreamworld Theme Park on the Gold Coast.

How to counsel children indirectly affected by tragic events

Caregivers can help children move forward from tragic events they have heard about, by providing them with factual information.

“Because children will imagine all sorts of things if they don’t have the facts,” Ms Nursey said.

Putting a tragic event, such as the accident that occurred at Dreamworld, into perspective is also constructive:

“[By telling children that] this is a very rare incident and very unique event ... this hasn’t happened before, and it is unlikely to happen again.”

But she added it was important to keep note of the reactions children may have over time, as this incident might be a trigger for some children in the future.

"Reactions can continue over a period of time and it's important to monitor those." 

Like children who have witnessed such an event, Ms Nursey reinforced it was important that children who had been impacted indirectly to talk about it.

“When something as 'in your face' as this happens - particularly for kids who might have been there recently or had a great holiday that was very memorable for them - being able to acknowledge and talk about the fact that that’s impacting those memories in some way, or that’s causing distress, is an important way of learning that it’s actually okay to have different emotional responses."

Kid Helpline: 1800 55 1800

Lifeline Australia 13 11 14

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