Associate Professor Gene Hodgins explores ways to talk about COVID-19, bushfires, drought and other traumas with young people

Associate Professor Gene Hodgins (left) explores ways to help young people cope with the traumas of 2020.
Associate Professor Gene Hodgins (left) explores ways to help young people cope with the traumas of 2020.

Between the lasting effects of the drought, this year's horrific bushfires and the completely unexpected virus pandemic, 2020 has dished its fair share of trauma.

It's enough for an adult to cope with, but Charles Sturt University psychologist Associate Professor Gene Hodgins is concerned that the disruptions could spark undue stress in the minds of little people.

He told The Daily Advertiser it's important not to neglect to talk about the big issues with children.

"The first thing is to be listening to them and not necessarily putting words in their mouths," Professor Hodgins said.

"Using open-ended questions, like asking, 'how are you going?' Sometimes they might not be thinking what we think they're thinking about what's going on. It could be something completely different that's concerning them.

"We might be thinking they're concerned about the pandemic, but actually it's a problem with their friends at school that really concerns them."

Noticing changes in a child's patterns of behaviour can be a big step towards recognising that a problem might be developing.

"It depends on the child's age, if you notice your child is acting differently to how they normally act and that change is persisting, they might be more withdrawn, more aggressive, more or less sleepy," Professor Hodgins said.

"That's when you're going to want to find out what's going on. If you're really concerned, it might be time to seek some professional help."

No matter how young, Professor Hodgins said, a child can pick up the stressors of their surroundings.

"There's research around saying even kids in utero can react to stressful events," he said.

"Then from the time they are born, they can be sensitive to what's going on around them.

"They might not be able to put words to it, but they can sense it. The older they get the more insight they have."

When it comes to approaching big topics with little people, Professor Hodgins recommends keeping the conversation brief.

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"We're all really busy, shorter sharper conversations are probably better than an hour-long deep and meaningful," he said.

"Relatively frequent short conversations, that works best for attention spans."

Given the pressures confronted by daily life, Professor Hodgins said, it was common for young people to choose an inappropriate time to have a deep conversation.

When that happens, he recommends making it clear that the conversation is one worth having, just at another time.

"Just before bed, that is common for kids to start having those kinds of hard conversations," he said.

"Try to see it from the child's perspective. They haven't got a mature coping mechanism. If they're talking about something important and you can stop the car, or stop making dinner, then do so.

"Or say 'I'm really glad you brought this up, can we talk about this after dinner?' You want to say something that says 'I want to hear what you're saying'."

This story Psychologist's tips for talking to children about trauma first appeared on The Daily Advertiser.