Episode 5 - Connie

Infant Mental Health Coordinator and Psychologist, Connie, answers questions on family recovery following the 2020 bushfires. 

Handy Hints for parents with infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers  in bushfire effected areas

Birdie's Tree - Growing together through natural disasters

Birdie’s Tree is a suite of resources, from the Children’s Health Queensland Hospital and Health Service, to help families with babies and young children recover from the emotional effects of natural disasters. It includes storybooks in nine different languages, games and information for families with babies and young children.

Birdie and the Fire is a story about Birdie and her friends who must get away from a bushfire. It’s a story for young children about recovering from fires.

Birdie’s Tree

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN)

One of the NCTSN resources is this children’s e-book which helps young children and their families talk about feelings and worries they may have after experiencing a large-scale fire, like a bushfire. A caregiver guide is available in the back of the book that provides ways parents can use the story with their children. The NCTSN also has guidelines for parents specifically related to helping children impacted by bushfires and a tip sheet for helping infants and toddlers after disasters.

Parent Guidelines for Helping Children Impacted by Wildfires

Parent Tips For Helping Infants and Toddlers After Disaster

 

Audio Transcript

Leah Wiseman: Hi Connie, nice to have you here today and to talk about family recovery for people living in the bushfire affected regions.

You are doing some work with people in Corryong, and we thought it might be worth just asking you some questions and to elicit some information that might be helpful for parents and family members who are concerned about the recovery of their children post the bushfires.

Connie Cudini: Hello everybody, and my actual title at Albury Wodonga Health is the Infant Mental Health Coordinator. So I potter around the region supporting families and services with children aged nought to five, and that's really the area that I specialise in.

And thank you Leah, yes I was up there recently to beautiful Corryong and Tallangatta areas and there's a lot of families asking a lot of really great questions at this point in time about how to support their kids. I guess we're, you know, a little way into having experienced the fires last summer and probably a lot of families bracing themselves for this summer, and I thought it would be really good time to talk a bit about what, you know, you might like to start noticing and thinking about in supporting your kids and your family.

Leah Wiseman: So we've got together a couple of questions Connie that are concerns that parents are raising. So I might just go through the questions and then you give the audience a bit of an idea of what advice you would offer.

So one of the questions that's been forwarded is around people really wanting to know how their child remembers the fires, or, feel after a traumatic event like the like the bush fires of 2020.

Connie Cudini: I guess the period of life between naught and five brings a huge amount of developmental changes, so how as a six month old infant might remember something like that, compared to how a four year old might remember something like that, is very different. Between the ages of naught and around about 12, the brain has only got the capacity to remember things in terms of how it felt and how it's smelt. They can’t yet quite remember things in terms of pictures like we do now as adults and older kids. So very much infants under 12 months will have what we call like a semantic kind of memory of that experience in a lot of ways. From that point onwards, from about 12 months onwards (and it's different for everybody), but your brain begins to start to remember things in terms of pictures and visual images. So our toddlers and pre-schoolers are going to be the ones that are going to be able to recall things like fire, things like dead animals on the road, things like stressed mommy and daddy, things like driving around town and trying to get out of town. They actually going to have those memories of it in their mind. But as they kind of progress more into early childhood those memories are more clear and accurate and better able to be recalled, but little people do find that recall a little bit tricky at times. So one of the things that's really important when you're having your family discussions about your experiences, early and late last year, is to really kind of check through what the kids are recalling because there will be a lot of inaccuracies. I think kids are very fantasy prone and they have big imaginations, and sometimes might add a few details to some of the things they remember, which is why it's really important for parents to check in on what they're actually kind of creating in their minds and be there to be able to correct it sometimes at times. Or sometimes just filling the gaps, because sometimes it's the gaps for these kids that are anxiety provoking for them.

Leah Wiseman: Yeah, absolutely. And lots of parents are interested in this sort of problems that their child might start to experience Connie. As a result of having gone through the experience of the bushfires what sort of things, you know, might they say their children start to experience.

Connie Cudini: Yeah. So, I guess, you know it's an interesting time that first 12 months post bushfire, or any kind of trauma response. Kids are gonna have a bit of a spectrum of response to it, and I think at first particularly your first three, you know, three or so months, the whole family and the whole community are very much still in shock. Sometimes still dealing with some pretty significant ramifications from the fire and little people are no different and it can take a little bit of time for the impact of the trauma to start to surface. Usually they say it's around six months where you might start to see that happening. And it can kind of manifest with kids in a number of ways, so it may be as simple as their sleep pattern starting to become more unsettled, not being able to go to bed at night without lots of comfort from Mum or Dad, waking lots during the night, more nightmares than is normal for them. Although nightmares around two tend to become more obvious anyway. It might be having problems with food and refusal to eat. Those sort of like basic things tend to get affected really easily. What parents notice more is stuff like separation anxiety or behavioural problems, so if you're just having such a huge time getting your kid to separate from you to go to kinder, or to go to day-care, or even you go to grandma's house, or kids that are having, you know, tantrums up to four or five big big emotional tantrums a day that are really hard to kind of settle down. These are the sorts of behaviours that you might start to think - hey this is a bit uncharacteristic for my child. But there's a point to that too, is that at the end of the day, it's not what's considered abnormal for all kids, and it's considered what you think’s abnormal for your child. So you know, what might be a shift or a trauma response for one kid could be very different to the next kid as well too.

Leah Wiseman: I guess that makes sense, doesn't it, because all kids have got a different baseline. You know that they're at, because before this experience. So I think that's really good tangible advice for parents to think about whether it's normal for their child not whether it's normal for their neighbour’s child or, or the child that they go to school with. Thank you. And I guess, a big focus from parents Connie is they just want to be able to help. What ideas do you have about how parents can help their child recover from the stress and the worry of what they've experienced?

Connie Cudini: Again it's about being different for every family, I've come across some families that still haven't kind of got to the point where they can even safely talk amongst themselves about their experience because the memory of that fire was just all too much. And so there's not a lot of conversation going on in those kinds of families, which means the kids are not benefiting from a lot of conversation about their experience of the fire, and perhaps feeling just as fearful as what Mum and Dad might be about that. Right through to families that can openly engage in lots and lots and lots of conversation and maybe getting to the point where kids are feeling quite flooded by a lot of conversations that they're either overhearing, or having with their families, about the fires. So it's about taking stock of what's happening in your family and within your supports, and having a think about do we need more or do we need less in terms of getting through this.

One of the things that you might like to think about, which I think is really sensible wherever you are on that spectrum, is having those lovely ideas of family meetings where you can all sit down and maybe do it once a week, once a fortnight and have just a check-in and say where is everybody at with what happened last summer? You know, what sorts of feelings is everybody still having? And I think it's really important as parents to share your feelings as well too, because kids will look to you for the kind of goal for how they're supposed to be processing all of this, and to know whether their issue is or should be still a threat, you know in a lot of ways.

So how much you can express your own emotions to them is really important to teach children as well too. And then, you can then use those as opportunities to check in to see what they've been thinking and what they've been remembering. Obviously if you've got kids that are 18 months or at a point where their language is not as good to be able to these conversations, you might all like to just sit down and draw pictures and see what happens when your little kids start to scribble with lots of black or lots of red. And, you know, that is enough sometimes to make a parent curious about how this kid might be still coping. So talking to the family is really important. Talking about safety is really important as well too, because kids need to have that sense, and that reassurance, that the fire is no longer a threat and obviously they'll look around them and they've looked around for months now, and they know there's no fires but you know it's interesting when the fog rolls in Corryong, lots of kids get that kind of instant feeling of fire because it looks like fire - so it's a trigger and it's a reminder. I wonder about people suddenly all of a sudden wearing masks and what that means for little kids again who have experienced lots of people wearing masks in the fire and whether they're, that was a bit of a trigger or could be triggers for kids to kind of re-experience some of that threat and that anxiety response in some way. So the key to helping your kid is to have a think about what's still in the environment that might be kind of making it hard for them to let it go or to feel safe in their day to day experience.

Leah Wiseman: You’re talking lots about family-based type approaches and strategies, I guess, it feels like it's obvious to someone like you with your experience but can you sum up why it's so important that the strategies you take are family focused?

Connie Cudini: Because kids have an incredible innate ability to be in tune with the adults around them. You know, we're born with that skill as human beings and really it's what enables us to survive - is that connection to the adults in our lives. And I guess that has, you know disadvantages at times in that the kids are gonna experience the stress and the anxiety that the adult’s are feeling as well too. So taking care of yourself as Mum and Dad, or grandma and grandpa, or aunty and uncle, is super super important, because that then dribbles down to real health throughout your whole family as well too. And you know kids rely on us to, to be there for them so that the least we can do for them is to look after ourselves as well too. I mean, it's also really important I think in communities like Corryong to use community support as well too and, you know, kids access lots of things at this age range - they access kinders and day-cares, health centers. And there’s lots of professionals there that can link you into supports where you need to. Your maternal-type health nurse, your GP, these are all really great people in your community to have a word to if you’re not sure whether there’s more that you should be doing, or whether you should even be concerned about your child in the first place.

Leah Wiseman: Thanks so much Connie. I guess in summary, it’s important to first of all remember that, or to keep in mind that, we can’t assume that our kids don’t remember no matter how young they were when the bushfires occurred. Their memories might be largely thematic, or sensory based, but they will more than likely have some memory of that time. That the problems they might start to experience may be far ranging from full-blown tantrums, to nightmares, to things that might be more subtle and the important thing for parents to keep in mind is to compare it to your child’s normal behaviour and their baseline is the best way to know whether it’s something for them to tune into. And that the best way to help your child recover is to talk about it, and to make sure the things they’re doing are focused within the family unit – that they can feel the support of the adults around them and feel tuned into how the adults are coping in their recovery as well.

Connie Cudini: Excellent Leah, you are very good at summarising!

Leah Wiseman: Well, I think I probably had the easier job in this discussion Connie, but thank you. We might leave it there for today but I know that there'll be lots more questions that will come to us on account of this conversation, so hopefully you'll be prepared for us to catch up again and have another chat in a little while.

Connie Cudini: Yeah, not a problem. And it's really important for people to know that the maternal child health nurse is a really accessible point of getting some questions answered as well too. And they can often direct some of those questions directly to me as well. That's a handy resource for parents in those areas too.

Leah Wiseman: Thanks so much, Connie.

Thank you to our guests on today's episode of our Albury Wodonga Health mental health podcast series - a sense of connection, mental health, wellbeing and resilience, you can find our contact details, an exhaustive resource list, and the entire podcast series at awh.org.au under the mental health tab.