Natural disasters such as bushfires, floods and earthquakes can be upsetting for your child. If you know how to talk about natural disasters with your child, you can help them understand what is happening and limit any emotional trauma they might experience.
How children learn about disasters
The more media coverage of a disaster that a child sees or hears, the more likely they will become upset or afraid. Therefore, during natural disasters, it’s important to limit your child’s exposure to media.
If they are exposed to media reports of the disaster or receive information at childcare, school or from other sources, it’s important to take the time to reassure them and answer their questions.
Managing your child's anxiety
If your child is exposed to a natural disaster, either in person or through the media, your support is vital. Talking with and listening to your child about the event can help them understand and manage any feelings they have during and after the disaster.
When they are ready to talk, create a safe environment and let them know you are there to discuss the event and how they are feeling. However, if they are not ready to talk, don't force them.
When your child is calm and feeling safe, talk about how natural disasters can be random and unpredictable. Try and find out what they know about the event and what they think this means.
When talking with your child, some valuable things you can do include:
- reassuring your child that they are safe
- encouraging them to talk about their feelings, thoughts and concerns since this helps them make sense of what has happened and understand that these feelings are normal
- answering their questions
- sharing your own feelings
- checking in with your child to see how they are coping
- being positive and role modelling positive thoughts for your child, such as 'we can handle this' or 'we are going to be OK'
- correcting any misconceptions by giving clear information about what is happening at each stage of the disaster, such as next steps in the recovery effort
If your child doesn't want to talk to you, let them know there are other people they can talk to and that you will always be there for them.
It's also good for your child to know that there are many people who can help during a natural disaster. Talk about the roles a police officer, firefighter, ambulance officer, teacher, friend, neighbour, local doctor and any other support workers play in helping out during and after a disaster.
Always remember to keep your conversation at the right level for your child's age, emotional maturity and level of understanding.
You might also like to consider allowing your child to participate in or contribute to some part of the recovery stage – either in the family or the community – if appropriate.
If you are developing an emergency plan for your house and family, include your child in the discussion. This can help them manage any anxiety they might have about emergencies from past experiences, or from what they have seen in the media.
Further information and support
There are also some online resources that might help, including:
- headspace (mental health support for young people aged 12 to 25)
- Youth Disaster Recovery Network (mental health support for young people and their parents, teachers and friends)
- Australian Red Cross (fact sheet on preparing for, managing and recovering from a natural disaster and a free activity book to help kids prepare for an emergency)
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Last reviewed: June 2021