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Australia: Children are way more resilient than we think

Today at a Child Friendly Space we set up at a cyclone recovery centre in Tully, I met a young boy called Gerard, 9, who had drawn an unusual picture – a chainsaw cutting a tree and a burning fire.

Gerard’s mother, Monaliza, was alarmed when she first saw her son’s drawing. Who wouldn’t be?

What did it mean that Gerard’s imagination had conjured this image? Had he suffered some dreadful psychological trauma brought on by the experience of living through a cyclone? Was he damaged in some way?

On closer inspection the story is much less unusual or sinister.

On the night of 2 February, Gerard and his family witnessed first-hand the devastating impact of Cyclone Yasi, the most powerful tropical storm to hit Australia in nearly a century.

Although the damage was nowhere near as bad as feared, the small communities of Tully, Ingham and Cardwell, all situated between Cairns and Townsville, were hit hard.

It’s here in Tully’s Cyclone Recovery Centre (formerly an indoor sports hall) that Gerard, supervised by a team of qualified Save the Children childcare workers, drew his picture.

When I ask Gerard why he drew the picture, he says it shows how he helped his father clear trees from around their home following the cyclone.

Gerard draws a picture of a chainsaw felling a tree and a fire burning to show how he helped his dad clear cyclone debris from their home.

So, there you go. Gerard doesn’t have an unhealthy obsession with chainsaws nor is he a pyromaniac. He merely chose to draw something that demonstrates the role he played in the cyclone recovery effort. Bottom line: Gerard’s pleased as punch to have helped out his father!

Gerard’s drawing also tells us something about the capacity children have to express themselves following a disaster – frequently they do so eloquently and creatively. Too often children are overlooked during a disaster response, and yet they have much to offer.

Our chief child protection specialist Karen Flanagan agrees. She says that children must be allowed plenty of self-expression through safe play following a traumatic event like a cyclone. She also believes, and this might surprise you, that children ought to be given small jobs in the disaster clean up.

That’s precisely what Gerard’s father allowed his son to do following Yasi. As a result Gerard felt useful rather than helpless, and in some small way it might have helped shield him from the risk, or onset of psychological trauma.

The message is a simply one: following a disaster keep children busy, keep them active and return them to a normal routine as quickly as possible.

Note to self: children are way more resilient than we know!

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