Parent and child hugging

Support after a Natural Disaster

It is normal to have an emotional response after a natural disaster whether you are directly or indirectly affected. Children who have survived a natural disaster often experience a wide variety of emotions which can occur immediately, later, or even long after the disaster has passed. Here’s some helpful information for parents during these times.



1. Getting The Help You Need Now

Immediately after a natural disaster, it’s critical you get the help you need as soon as possible. Use the resource below for quick links to disaster relief payments, assistance with financial and legal issues and parenting orders as well as health and mental wellbeing supports.
Factsheet - Access the Help You Need (DOC)

2. Talking to Children About Natural Disasters

The way we talk to our children about natural disasters and other traumatic events can be a powerful tool to help them process and understand these incidents. This video introduces ways for parents and carers to manage media coverage of traumatic events, and suggests ideas for how to talk to children about their worries and fears.

Talking to children about natural disasters, traumatic events, or worries about the future from Emerging Minds on Vimeo.

3. Supporting your Child Following a Natural Disaster

The following areas are the most important to focus on with your family over the weeks and months after experiencing the impacts of a natural disaster.


Children regardless of their age, need to feel the protection and comfort of their parents or other familiar caregivers.

  • Your child may wish to be held, hugged or physically close to you more than they usually would.
  • Remind them they are loved, important and safe, especially if they are in an unfamiliar environment.
  • Safety can sometimes come from stability. This might feel hard to provide but even explaining what will happen today and the next day, as best you can, will provide some sense of stability.

Encourage (but don’t force) children and young people to talk about their thoughts and feelings.

  • Let them know that their emotions are normal.
  • Expect that they might ask the same questions over and over as they attempt to make sense of events. Remain patient and provide truthful but simple explanations that will help them to develop an understanding of events.
  • If they get very upset provide comfort but don’t add any of your own concerns or worries.

Despite the stress and many challenges you are facing, try to respond as calmly as possible to your child’s reactions.

  • If there is a lot of activity happening around you, look for quieter, calm areas to be and consider an activity that you might do together that creates some calm.
  • Children in our Catholic schools have been taught Christian Meditation. This is a beautiful way to allow a few minutes of peace and calm into a stressful time. Ask your child to teach you the art of Christian Meditation.
  • Try to avoid your child overhearing other people’s distressed conversations. Children often see and hear far more than adults are aware of, and they will take their cues on how to respond from you.
  • Signs that your child or young person has been negatively affected by information about a natural disaster like a flood might include:
    • Becoming clingy towards a parent or carer
    • Changes to sleeping and/or eating patterns
    • The emergence of new physical complaints – such as stomach ache or headache.
    • Changes in mood – such as being more easily irritable, or shutting down
    • Appearing on edge and frightened.
  • Accept the child or young person’s responses, reactions and feelings. Don’t tell them to ‘stop being silly’, or to ‘be brave’. Try not to make behavioural or emotional demands or have expectations the child might not be able to meet at this particular time.

Share with your children the acts of bravery, generosity and kindness that others have shown towards you and others impacted by the disaster. It gives us comfort and hope to know that others care and are offering support in many different ways.


Showing care for others can be empowering and healing. Invite your child to think of ways to help others in similar or worse situations:

  • This might be setting up games for other children.
  • Suggesting safe ways they can help with the clean up.
  • Asking them how they think they could help others.

Children need love, reassurance, patience, care and time to recover from natural disasters, as do adults. Be mindful of their on-going needs and reactions, and of the important things in life, even once you become busy with rebuilding your lives. Try to find time and space for important conversations about further changes, such as temporary accommodation, the rebuild, or moving communities.

Factsheet: Mackillop Institute: Supporting Your Child After Natural Disasters

4. What About My Teenager?

Many of the strategies to support children are suitable for your teenager as well. However, adolescents have a maturing understanding of themselves and the world and your response to your teenage child will need to be adjusted.

Practical Ways to Support Your Teen

The following information from headspace provides practical and helpful information for you as you support your teen during this challenging time.
Factsheet - Supporting a Young Person After a Natural Disaster

When Your Teen Won’t Talk

Sometimes it can be difficult to talk with your teen - they may close down and go through phases where they talk less than you would like. If they aren’t responsive to having conversations with you about how they are coping, you might try giving them the information from headspace in the factsheet below and then together developing a self-care plan for a healthy headspace in the coming months.
Headspace Factsheet for Young People

Service To Others

Many teens have a keen sense of social justice and respond well to invitations to help out in their community. Even those teens who have been impacted themselves will gain a great deal by giving of themselves to help others in need. Talk about ways they might be able to share their gifts, time and energies to support their communities and then assist them to action those ideas.

5. Parenting and the Parent-Child Relationship After a Disaster

Child psychotherapist, Ruth Wraith discusses how parent-child relationships are key to helping children feel safe and secure, and how disasters can affect parent-child relationships. This video contains suggestions and advice for professionals and parents to help support families in parenting their children after a disaster.
Video - The Impact on Parenting of Natural Disasters

6. Time Has Passed and I Still Have Concerns

As the months pass after the event most children will adapt to their ‘new normal’, however, a minority of children will need extra support. It is important to seek professional advice as they may benefit from additional support. A good start is to go to your GP. You could also try Family Connect and Support 1800 327 679 or Parentline 1300 1300 52. Parent Line is a free telephone counselling and support service for parents and carers with children aged 0 to 18 who live in NSW.

Children’s reactions to a traumatic event can vary according to:

  • Level of exposure to the event
  • Age and ability to understand the situation
  • Functioning prior to the event
  • Personality style
  • Resulting changes in living situations (e.g., relocation), roles and responsibilities
  • Support network
  • Previous loss or trauma experience

There are some things that you may notice in your child that can indicate that you should seek advice.


If your child is withdrawing from friends and family and avoiding school or normal activities perhaps by indicating they have physical symptoms like stomach pains or headaches, it is time to seek extra help.


Children may show evidence of re-living aspects of the event, or of having recurring images and thoughts about the event. This includes children acting as if the event is occurring again or having nightmares about the event.

Heightened Emotions

Children may show agitation and elevated responsiveness to reminders of the events. These reminders could come from seeing images of the event on news and social media or smells and sounds that trigger a memory.

Look for:

  • Increased sensitivity to sights, sounds or other stimuli related to the event
  • Changes in sleep patterns. This can include not wanting to sleep alone.
  • Increased irritability
  • Changes in concentration and disorganised behaviour
  • Easily startled
  • Increased crying
  • Changes in mood
  • Worry and anxiety about loved ones and the future
  • Appetite changes
  • For teenagers look for signs of risk behaviour and use of alcohol or illegal drugs

(Source: Caring for Kids After Trauma, Disaster and Death).

7. Long Term Support

It is important to be aware that children may need ongoing support in the months and even years after a disaster or traumatic event. Whilst most children do recover in time, ongoing difficulties can continue to challenge some children.

It is important that children are given the time they need to recover. Recovery doesn’t always follow a predictable path. While some children who are significantly impacted in the early months improve with time, it takes others much longer. Some children can appear to have minimal effects immediately following a disaster but can begin to feel distressed at a later time.

It is hard to predict what will happen for each individual child, but there are some steps you can take to help support each child’s recovery, minimise the likelihood of ongoing difficulties and connect them to the support they need.

Continue to check in with your child about how they are feeling

Let your child know that it is normal for it to take a long time to feel better after a very frightening event.

  • Let them know you are always there to talk.
  • Children can often get the message that they should be ‘moving on’. This can make them feel isolated if they are not feeling okay and they can presume that everyone else is.
  • It can be helpful to set aside a particular time to catch up with your children, a weekly one-on-one walk or small activity. This gives children the security of knowing that each week they can speak to you about how they are, the good things and the worrying things.
Be open with your child about how you are feeling

Share with them what has helped and be honest about how it is hard for you, too. Normalise the feelings of distress but remain positive that, with support and time, things will get easier.

Talk to each child about their experience of the event

Remember each child has their own experience, including children within the same family.

  • It can be helpful to talk to each child individually with some special one on one time
  • It can also help to widen the conversation to speak with extended family members or friends who can share their different experiences and how they got through hard times and what they found helpful.
  • Children can sometimes feel more comfortable speaking with adults other than their parents, particularly if they think talking about the event is upsetting for them, e.g. 'Every time we talk about the event Mum cries and Dad goes quiet.'
Don’t expect perfection in yourself or your children

If things have gone badly, you’ve lost your temper or broken down, that is okay. It is very difficult to manage your family’s recovery from trauma or to see your child continue to suffer, and the physical and psychological demands of caring for a distressed, sleep-disturbed child are great.

  • Speak with your children afterwards
  • Apologise if necessary and reassure them that they are safe and loved.
  • Provide comfort and reassurance.

All families experience arguments and frustration; however, it is really helpful if you can work to ‘repair’ afterwards when things are calmer. Remember, as adults, it is our responsibility to nurture the relationship and to heal it when it has been hurt.

Maintain (or establish) a connection with your child’s school

It is important to have good communication with your child’s school so you can get a full picture of how your child is recovering. Children can seem perfectly fine at home but display worrying behaviour at school or vice versa. Communication can also help make sure any issues your child is experiencing are responded to sensitively and consistently, so they know what to expect both at home and out of home.

Encourage your child to continue or return to activities that they enjoy

Of particular benefit to children are joining in activities that involve community connection like Church groups, sports, dance or music. If they (or you) do not have many connections outside the home, try and build new ones. Research has shown that when children and families are involved in their faith communities, sporting or hobby groups or community events, their wellbeing is enhanced. Just remember to keep a balance between organised events, quiet time, free play and family time.

Take time to check in with yourself

This is not an indulgence, but a priority. Our children are not okay if we are not okay. If you are feeling exhausted, overwhelmed and very anxious or are suffering any post-traumatic stress symptoms it is critical you seek extra support. Parents often put themselves last thinking this is best for their families, yet we know that children are very sensitive to adults’ wellbeing. They can sense stress and are affected if we are unable to ‘connect’ and be engaged with them. This often comes out in more challenging behaviours that just makes things more difficult. If there is one thing you do for your children, it should be to make your wellbeing a priority.

(Source: Emerging Minds)