Supporting Children through Trauma and Natural Disasters
Large traumatic events, such as the recent Australian bushfires, have a significant effect on the emotional wellbeing of individuals and communities as a whole. Media coverage and widespread discussion about these events and associated political issues have also led to repeated exposure to distressing images and information amongst the wider community.
Naturally, children and young people are especially vulnerable to the impact of such events, with research indicating they adversely affect young people’s development, alongside their social, psychological and academic functioning. As a result, many children may experience symptoms of emotional distress in the aftermath of such events, including stress, anxiety and low mood.
While some effects may persist or be delayed, for many children and families directly impacted by bushfires, the initial days and weeks after an event are likely to be particularly difficult, as change and upheaval impact their routines and sense of safety. Importantly, as children look to their caregivers for emotional support and reassurance, parental distress may also impact upon young people during this time. Media coverage is often also likely to be greatest immediately following an event, reaching and affecting children in the wider community.
Tell me a Story
Invite young people to recall and retell their own memorable moments of extremity.
Recognising Distress in Children
Every family will experience an event differently based on their unique circumstances, and all children are different in the way they respond to, and cope with, traumatic events. However, signs in your child’s behaviour that may indicate they are anxious or distressed include:
Young children (under five years)
- Changes in their sleep patterns
- Going backwards in their development (e.g. wetting the bed, reverting to “clinging” behaviour)
- Changes in their play (eg; different themes or style of play)
School-aged children (Five years and over)
- Not wanting to go to school
- Disrupted sleep
- Anxiety about sleeping alone
- Behavioural difficulties or emotional outbursts
- Physical symptoms (e.g. headaches or tummy aches)
- Concentration difficulties and reduced academic performance
- Feeling anxious or worried about the safety of self or others
- Questions about death or dying
Young Adults (12 years and over)
- Sleep difficulties
- Appearing withdrawn or depressed
- Aggressive or emotional outbursts
Ways to Support Your Child
The type and amount of information you provide your child about the bushfires is dependent on their age, and your family’s individual situation and experiences. However, simple explanations that reassure children that they are safe and let them know that you are there for them are often helpful.
- Try to keep your family’s usual routine as much as possible. If they have been disrupted, help re-establish routines as soon as possible, as these are essential for children to grow and develop typically.
- Support children to gain a sense of self-control by allowing them to make choices that are age-appropriate.
- Monitor and limit your child’s exposure to the media and adult conversation about the bushfires.
- Make yourself available to spend quality time with your children, play with them, and provide them with lots of physical affection. This helps to reinforce that they are safe and loved and offers them an opportunity to express how they are feeling.
- Give children a chance to discuss their individual experiences of the bushfires with you and to share their personal fears. Don’t try to change the subject if your child brings it up. Answer any questions that your child may have honestly, calmly, without giving a lot of detail. Let them know you understand how they feel, offer them reassurance, and correct any misconceptions or ‘false’ ideas they may have.
- Children are highly attuned to the responses and feelings of adults around them. Ensure you look after yourself and seek your own support if needed, to enable you to best be there for your child.
For most children, symptoms of distress will reduce over time with support from caring adults in their lives. If you notice that your child’s distress and/or anxiety does not appear to be lessening over time, or is becoming worse, it may be beneficial to seek some professional support. For more information on how the Quirky Kid Clinic can help, or to schedule an appointment please
View article references
- Australian Psychological Society. (2016). Looking After Children Who are Anxious about Bushfire Season. Retrieved from: https://www.psychology.org.au/getmedia/5c0d043b-11b4-467e-be7c-f56743b366b0/Preparing-children-for-the-threat-of-bushfires.pdf. (Retrieval date: 28th January 2020).
- Emerging Minds. (2019, 25th March). The ongoing psychosocial needs of children following a community trauma. (Audio Podcast). Foulks, D. (2005).
- Nurturing Children After Natural Disasters. A Booklet for Child Care Providers, National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies. Arlington, Virginia, 1-16. Gibbs, L., Nursey, J., Cook, J., Ireton, G., Alkemade, N., Roberts, M., ... Forbes, D. (2019).
- Delayed disaster impacts on academic performance of primary school children. Child development, 90(4), 1402-1412. O’brien, K. (2011).
- Children and Natural Disasters. Retrieved From: https://childpsychologist.com.au/children-and-a-natural-disasters/. Stafford, B., Schonfield, D., Keselman, L., Ventevogel, P., Stewart, C. (2009).
- The Emotional Impact of Disaster on Children and Families in Pediatric Education in Disasters Manual. Retrieved From: https://www.aap.org/en-us/Documents/disasters_dpac_PEDsModule9.pdf#page=3. (Retrieval date: 28th January 2020).