Four-year-old Cleo Smith was found by Western Australian police earlier this week, 18 days after going missing from a remote campsite.
Being taken and removed from one’s family is a significantly traumatic event for any child. It disrupts their entire world.
Children are dependent on their families and attachment figures for their sense of security and support. Sudden loss of these important relationships can result in fear, a sense of abandonment and confusion.
Children left alone can become withdrawn and depressed and have little understanding of why this has happened to them.
There can be long-term effects, such as memories of the fearful experience, sleep disruption and anxiety. Some children will have difficultly rebuilding their sense of security and trust.
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As a child psychiatrist who’s researched trauma, I’m interested in how we can ensure such children recover.
Family members, the media and the public also need to avoid certain actions or behaviours that could re-traumatise the child.
How can the child recover?
The first priority after finding the child is to immediately re-establish a sense of safety and stability, and to reunite them with their family.
The most important thing is to avoid intrusive, probing questioning straight away as this can be frightening and distressing. It’s a normal response for the child to try to not think about what they’ve just been through.
They will take their own time before they’re able to share details of their experiences, and will need considerable support and care to do this.
Intrusive questioning may re-traumatise the child.
For survivors of trauma, being asked to focus on their memories and experiences of fear can be distressing and bring back the terror of the experience, particularly if they’re not ready to think about the events.
Police forces have skilled interviewers who understand and avoid this when recovering a child, and perform the interviews gradually.
There are open questions about any other sort of trauma Cleo may have experienced, but for now we don’t have any information on this. We might never know all the details and we need to respect the family’s right to privacy.
Some children might benefit from counselling, particularly if they have severe anxiety symptoms or have been held for a long time.