Experiencing extreme weather events and disasters such as bushfires and floods following drought is becoming more common in Australia (Seneviratne et al., 2021). For infants, children and families, many may show some signs of distress but most will recover with safety, care, and reassurance. However, it’s important to know when people, and in particular infants and children may need some extra support.
I’m Ruby Awram, and I live in the Far North of Australia in Cairns on Gimuy Walubarra Yidinji Country and grew up in Broome on Yawuru Country. These are such beautiful and amazing places to live. I am never far from the natural landscape that makes life in Australia so special. However, sometimes living in these amazing places can also challenge us. Since I was a small child, I have seen the devastating impacts of disasters on the landscape, natural and built, people and communities including my own family.
I work as a Child Mental Health Advisor – Disasters & Climate Change at Emerging Minds. We are a national not-for-profit organisation dedicated to advancing the mental health and emotional wellbeing of Australian infants, children, adolescents and their families. I trained as a mental health occupational therapist and have worked to support children and families for the past decade. Using my personal experience of living and working through floods, cyclones, and bushfires around Australia, I am committed to supporting the younger generation and their families to prepare for and recover from extreme weather events and other disasters.
What we know from the hundreds of families we’ve spoken to is that when infants and children have experienced an extreme weather event or emergency, it can sometimes be difficult for parents to recognise when they are experiencing the usual ups and downs of development, or when they might need some extra help navigating what they have experienced. It can also be tricky for parents and carers to know where to go when they need more information and support.
With the guidance of family members with lived and learned experience, practitioners and researchers, key information has been developed to provide practical strategies for people to use in their own context.
Rachel, a parent from Kinglake who lived through the Black Saturday bushfires, urges parents to be honest with their children; “something helpful for other mums would be to be honest and not hide what you’re feeling. It’s okay to let your children see you upset and to keep it real. Then there’d be no confusion – they will feel like it’s okay for them to feel upset too, and they’ll have an understanding of what’s happening… keep the lines of communication open”.
We want parents to remember it’s normal to be worried about the potential mental health impacts of extreme weather events and disasters on their child or children, but there are things you can do to support them during this time. For example:
Prepare a family emergency plan together.
One of the best ways to reduce your child’s stress and anxiety before, during or after a disaster is to actively involve them in any planning so you can take steps together to manage situations in the best way possible.
Plan to leave early.
This keeps the family together under less stressful conditions and reassures your child that you’re all safe.
Talk to your child about disasters.
Talking honestly with your child (in an age-appropriate way) and letting them know that you’re prepared and have a plan helps them to feel safer and more secure.
Encourage your child to express their thoughts and feelings
Be curious about what they’re feeling in their body and help them to describe it. Accept their feelings and reactions – we all respond differently.
Listen to your child’s concerns.
If your child is worried, let them know that’s normal. Acknowledge their feelings but provide reassurance you know how to keep them safe.
Be honest about what’s happening, and what might happen next
Your child will make up their own meanings, so providing them with accurate, age- and ability-appropriate information is important. Correct any false ideas they might have.
Return to a routine (when the time is right)
This will help your child to cope and regain a sense of predictability and consistency, which is important for their recovery.
Give your child extra time and attention
This can be difficult when there are many competing demands. Nevertheless, the important thing is that your child feels connected to you and can see that you’re making time for them. You could join them in whatever game they’re playing, let them help you to cook dinner, or have a cuddle on the couch while you ask about their day.
Stay connected with your child’s school or Early Learning Service (ELS)
Schools and ELS can offer a sense of safety, normalcy, routine, and connection with friends after a disaster.
Take time to reflect
As time goes on, support your child in reflecting on what has changed since the event. Pay particular attention to any unexpected positives that have occurred. You don’t need to pretend there haven’t been great difficulties but try to focus on any strengths in the community, like how people have come together to help with the recovery efforts. By focusing on any new skills or achievements, you will help your child to feel more hopeful and in control.
Plan things that bring joy
We’re all good at something, and we all enjoy particular things. Encouraging your child (and yourself) to do things that bring them joy and a sense of accomplishment, and to plan things to look forward to, can really help with their recovery. Planning activities as a family can also give everyone something to look forward to and serve as a helpful distraction from the stress and uncertainty that often come after experiencing a disaster.
Look after yourself
Self-care is not an indulgence; it’s a priority. This is an essential part of supporting your child’s recovery. Even just taking a few minutes to listen to a song that always makes you feel better, or 10 minutes to call someone you love, can make a difference. Doing activities you enjoy can lower your stress levels, boost your mood and help you feel calmer and more capable of supporting the people around you. These articles share more ideas on strategies to look after your well-being after a bushfire, flood, or during drought.
Ask friends and family for support
If you’re concerned about your child’s recovery, ask trusted friends and family to help.
Don’t put off seeking professional support
With care and support, most children will recover from experiencing a disaster. If your child’s difficulties don’t improve after 1–2 months and/or they appear to be anxious or sad, and this is impacting their daily life, seek professional advice from your GP or a health practitioner.
By simply being a safe, consistent and caring figure in your child’s life, you will be helping them to cope following a disaster. In fact, lots of families say that after the initial trauma, they become closer and stronger than ever. They’re required to pull together and focus on what’s most important to them.
Emerging Minds Families is here to help all families access the right information at the right time. No matter how your child is travelling, it’s never too early to support their mental health.
The Emerging Minds Community Trauma Toolkit also provides resources for parents, families, and professionals. It will help you learn more about the impacts of disasters and how you can help lessen these impacts.
Visit the website: emerging minds.com.au/ families/natural-disasters/
Seneviratne, S.I., X. Zhang, M. Adnan, W. Badi, C. Dereczynski, A. Di Luca, S. Ghosh, I. Iskandar, J. Kossin, S. Lewis, F. Otto, I. Pinto, M. Satoh, S.M. Vicente-Serrano, M. Wehner, and B. Zhou, 2021: Weather and Climate Extreme Events in a Changing Climate. In Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S.L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M.I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T.K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu, and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, pp. 1513–1766, doi:10.1017/9781009157896.013.