Natural disasters are inevitable but uncommon. Everyone needs
some support after being in, or witnessing a natural disaster, but
everyone is different so the type or level of support they need is
different and changes over time. If you are reading this fact sheet
you are likely to be aware that it is important to seek support
following natural disasters. It's great you want to support your
child/young person. headspace encourages you to make sure you are
also supporting yourself.
Common reactions and behaviours
Grief and loss
People who have survived a natural disaster often feel a sense of
grief and loss, but there are no 'right' or 'wrong' feelings and
they can vary markedly from one person to another. You may be
supporting a child who has lost family members, friends,
neighbours, pets, their homes and cherished possessions. Young
people sometimes have trouble explaining their feelings, and they
may seem 'cut off' or bewildered. They might feel they cannot
grieve openly, particularly if others seem to have lost even
Confusion, guilt and shame
Trying to understand a natural disaster can be confusing,
especially for young people. This can make them feel angrier and
more frightened as the days go by. Sometimes survivors of a
disaster feel guilty that they have survived while others have not.
Younger children sometimes feel a sense of personal responsibility,
as if they caused the disaster in some way. Young people may feel
ashamed of how they are feeling, and withdraw from other people or
hide their feelings.
Fear, anxiety and insecurity
Sometimes people feel anxious, frightened and unsafe for weeks or
months after the disaster, despite being physically safe. This is a
normal reaction to a frightening event, but it can add to a
Reactions to trauma
Young people can 'act out' when they are grieving or traumatised.
They can become aggressive or irritable, and start having problems
at school. Alternatively, they might become withdrawn and 'clingy',
and find it hard to separate themselves from family members.
Children might develop physical complaints like stomach aches
and headaches in response to their distress. Some adolescents may
self-harm, use drugs or alcohol, or develop eating disorders as a
response to their emotions.
Reactions of parents/families
Most people, of all ages, recover well from the emotional
effects of natural disasters. Families, especially parents, have an
important role in the healing process. But parents and families
have their own problems to cope with, and you may find yourself
juggling your own reactions to the disaster with your
responsibilities for your child. Reactions can include:
- Guilt about not being able to shield your child from the
effects of the disaster.
- Fear and anxiety about the continuing safety of your
- Negativity about the world in general, which you may not be
able to conceal from your child.
- Impatience and frustration about your child making a slow
How to help your child
Maintain some regular activities and encourage your child to eat,
rest and sleep well. Explain what will happen today and the next
day, as best you can, and write down a plan to remind them. Provide
as much security as possible, by being around, giving your child
time to talk, and by developing some comforting routines. Involve
your child in choosing new belongings, and perhaps remember old
toys and other treasured possessions with a 'goodbye ceremony'.
Tell your child about what is being done to help the whole
community. When possible, reassure them that their friends and
other family members are safe, and contact them if you can.
Normalise, but don't minimise
It can be a relief for young people to know that their feelings
are normal, but be careful to acknowledge and respect their
emotions. Do not dismiss or minimise the intensity and importance
of their reactions.
Explain gently, create a shared story
When your child is calm and feeling safe you can talk about how
natural disasters are random and unpredictable. Correct any
confused explanations of the disaster your child may have.
Give your child the chance to talk about what they miss and what
they have lost, but do not push them to talk. Acknowledge that what
has happened is not 'fair'. If you have lost loved ones, tell them
enough details so there are no 'secrets', without causing extra
Young children might need only a small amount of information,
but they do need reassurance that natural disasters are uncommon
and they are now safe. Try not to discuss worrying 'adult' issues
about the disaster in front of young children.
Use your child's strengths and likes
Talk about the strengths you know your child has, and how they can
use them. For example, they might like to draw or tell stories, so
let them do this to explain what has happened and how they are
feeling. It's quite okay to talk about how the disaster has
affected you, and how you are trying to get life back on track.
Make time to be with your child, to do normal things, and to have
some quiet time with them. Try to be available emotionally,
although this can sometimes be hard when you, too, have a lot to
cope with. If you seem anxious, it can reinforce their view that
the world is unsafe. At the same time, allow your child some space,
and some time to themselves.
Encourage coping skills
Encourage your child to step back from their problems or negative
feelings and think of ways to reduce their distress. Help them work
out ways to solve problems, and find ways to relax and reduce their
Be a role model
Look after yourself and be true to how you feel. Try to keep your
life as structured as possible. If you can, put off big decisions
until you feel more stable. Get enough rest, and talk with friends,
family and health professionals if you're feeling overwhelmed.
Don't forget that caregivers need care too.
Keep in contact with teachers and other
Discuss what your child is feeling and experiencing, and what you
are doing to help, to ensure a consistent response.
When to get help
You should think about getting help if your child is having
difficulties more than about six weeks after the disaster, or is
not functioning well in normal activities. Services such as your
local doctor, community health centre, school counsellor or local
mental health service can provide advice and assistance.
Seek immediate help if you think your child is at risk, for
example of self-harm. Call your local hospital, emergency services,
Lifeline (13 11 14) or Kids
Helpline (1800 55 1800).
This information was produced thanks to the generous support
of the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund and has been developed in
collaboration with the Victorian Department of Health