Coping strategies for children after a natural disaster

26 FEB 2021

A child’s reaction may not be what you expect in times of stress and their responses can manifest in different ways. There are steps a parent can take to help a child through a traumatic event and determine if a child may need some extra help coping.

Children have the ability to work through challenges and cope with stress when they are well supported. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from stress, adversity, failure, challenges, or even trauma. It is a skill that young people can develop as they grow. When a child is affected by a natural disaster, such as the recent Perth bushfires, it is important that they are made feel safe and supported, to help them to cope and increase their resilience.

Why it is important to take care of a child’s mental health after a disaster?

Emotional stress from a disaster can be harder on children because they:

  • Understand less about the situation;
  • Feel less able to control events;
  • Have less experience dealing with stressful situations; and
  • May not be able to understand or clearly communicate their feelings, such as fear or anxiety.

Read more here.
What can I do to help?

There are things that you can do that can support your child’s mental wellbeing after a natural disaster:

  • Be honest with your children. Create a safe space to talk and encourage them to ask questions and answer them honestly. It is important that you use language that they will be able to absorb and understand.
  • Returning to a normal routine is important for a child to feel safe. It will help if you return to your routine too – children are very perceptive and will tend to follow your lead. This can be as simple as sitting down for dinner and going to bed at the same time as you usually would.
  • Continuously give your child opportunities to ask questions and talk about what happened, what is happening now and what will happen in the future.
  • Surround your child with people who will make them feel safe and supported. This can include friends of theirs and family members.
  • Limit your child’s exposure to media coverage of the disaster and its aftermath. This includes being careful about what you are discussing with other adults in their company.
  • Be honest with those around your child about how they are coping and what they have been through. Teachers, coaches, and other family members can then offer support by monitoring the child’s behaviour along with you and help support your child while they’re recovering.

How do you know your child is not coping?

It is normal for children’s behaviour or demeanour to change after a natural disaster. This can be an incredible unsettling experience that your child can react to even if they are not old enough to fully understand what is happening. Making them feel safe and supported is important.

Although children’s emotional reactions after a disaster can vary, they should not be a lingering or permanent alteration. Consider talking to your child’s healthcare professional after two to four weeks if:

  • Your child continues to be very upset. Being upset can manifest itself in different ways. They may show anxiety or fear by not wanting to be separated from you, they may be quiet or withdrawn, or they might start to break rules or have temper outbursts which are out of character for them. 
  • Your child is finding it very difficult to return to normal eating and sleeping habits or interacting with people in their lives that they normally would.
  • Your child’s behaviours are getting worse, not better.
  • Your child’s reaction is affecting their schoolwork or relationships.

Helping a child cope with a disaster can be a challenge for parents. Don’t be afraid to reach out for professional help and support for your child. Try the child’s school or visit your GP for recommendations on where to go.
Remember that you cannot pour from an empty cup, so it is essential that you are also getting all the support you need to cope after a natural disaster. Try and focus on the basics like getting seven to eight hours’ sleep a night, eating a balanced diet, getting some exercise, and be sure to rest when you need it. Reach out for help from friends, family and professionals should you need it. You don’t need to do this alone.
For more information on coping during a natural disaster go here.

For more information on how to talk about difficult topics with children, go here

13 Help (13 43 57) is a dedicated Lifeline service for people in bushfire affected communities.

We know that the loss and grief caused by the bushfires can impact the mental wellbeing of many communities and people, both now and well into the future. We are here for you 24/7.

Written by Karen McGlynn

Image Credit: Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash