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Supporting kids through a natural disaster

7-minute read

Natural disasters can happen suddenly and can have a big impact on your child's health and wellbeing. You can support your child best by knowing what to do before, during and after a natural disaster. 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 can I prepare my child for a natural disaster?

Natural disasters - such as bushfires, earthquakes and floods - cause a lot of damage, destroying homes and valuables, while also causing injury and possibly death.

If you live in an area where natural disasters might happen, it's important to have a family emergency plan prepared.

Take the following steps.

  • Get prepared – Know what disasters are more likely to occur, how local services (e.g. schools, child care) will respond, and where you can get information and contact emergency services.
  • Get connected – Know your support network (e.g. community groups, clubs, neighbours) and how they can help.
  • Get organised – Know how to manage your child's health. Ask your child to identify some important things in their life and work out how you can protect these.
  • Get packing – Pack enough things so you can manage for a few days without basic services. Pack your child's passport, medications, immunisation records and birth certificate. Make sure you have copies of these, stored digitally or in another location.

Include your child in the conversation when developing your emergency plans. This will help them manage any anxiety they may have about the situation.

Some good examples of emergency plans are the Australian Red Cross RediPlan and the Queensland Government's Get Ready.

How can I help my child during a natural disaster?

Your child will need your help, but possibly not in the ways you might expect. They might have fears that you don’t expect, or they might express their fears in unexpected ways. But you can still support your child during a natural disaster.

  • Explain what is happening (without going into unnecessary detail) - for example, how the recovery is going and what might happen next.
  • Ask questions to find out how they are feeling and what they are thinking. Share your own feelings with them.
  • Encourage play and fun if they want to since this takes their minds off the trauma.
  • Keep to a routine where possible, to help your child feel secure.
  • Limit change. When change is necessary, prepare your child for what is happening.
  • Spend time doing recreational activities together when possible. Having fun is important for healing.
  • Try using calming techniques, such as mindfulness or relaxed breathing.
  • Encourage your child to eat, rest and sleep as well as possible.

By supporting your child during a natural disaster, you can help them manage emotional trauma. If you protect your child from confusion, they will be able to help you through the disaster too.

Remember, you may also need support to manage your own reactions to the disaster.

What emotional reactions might my child have during a natural disaster?

There are no ‘right’ or 'wrong' feelings when it comes to natural disasters and every child’s emotions will be different.

During a natural disaster, your child might feel:

  • grief and loss for lost family members, friends, pets or their possessions
  • confusion, guilt and shame, because they might have survived while other people did not - this might lead to your child hiding their feelings or feeling responsible for the disaster
  • fear, anxiety and insecurity about what is happening

They might also be aggressive, irritable, withdrawn or clingy, always wanting to be near you. These feelings are all natural and will reduce over time.

Sometimes, your child's stress and emotions can make them feel unwell. Common symptoms you might see include stomach aches and headaches.

How can I help manage my 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.

How do I deal with media reports on disasters?

Media reports and images of natural disasters can be distressing. The more media coverage a child sees, the more likely they are to 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.

Where can I get more information and support?

You may be able to get support from your family and friends, community groups, school, your doctor, or psychologist.

There are also some excellent online resources, including:

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2021

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