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Four ways you can help your kids deal with a natural disaster

A man holds a young boy who looks sad.
Children might be upset by or worried about natural disasters after seeing them on the news or experiencing wild weather firsthand.

Every year, Queensland prepares for another summer season hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. We're a state that's been home to fires, flooding, hail storms, cyclones, and other natural disasters that can result in property destruction, displacement, and loss of life. But even when we’re prepared for the physical effects of extreme weather, we’re not always prepared for the toll it takes on the thoughts and emotions of our youngest residents.

We all need support after a major disaster or loss, but it can be much harder when you're a child who hasn't experienced a major disaster before and can't articulate your fears or concerns. Instead, these concerns manifest as sleep difficulties, nightmares, being hyper-alert for signs of danger, or by displaying behaviour often expected of a younger child (like an older child throwing tantrums), in addition to the anxiety, irritability, and sadness usually displayed by adults.

For parents going through a natural disaster with their kids, the experience can be an additional source of worry. The urge to protect your kids is strong, and there's a natural desire to protect them from the emotional aftermath just as much as the physical effects.

So if you're a parent going through a disaster with your kids for the first time, what is it that you should do? Here are four things worth keeping in mind, when it comes to building up your kid's emotional resilience after a natural disaster has occurred.

Look after your own mental health

Hard as it may be, you need to think of your own mental health in the aftermath of a disaster like the oxygen masks on an airplane. Just as it’s best to make sure your own mask is secure before helping someone else, you want to make sure you're managing your own feelings of fear and frustration before you can help your young person respond.

Acknowledge that a level of distress is natural after a disaster, and make sure you turn to other adults when you need to discuss your feelings rather than having these conversations with your children.

Aim to model calm and confidence when you're around your kids. Reassure them that while a natural disaster is dangerous, it is an infrequent, tragic event and that this sort of thing is extremely rare. Reassure them that the world is not always a dangerous place, and that things will return to normal once the disaster has passed.

Let your kids express their feelings

It's normal for kids to feel some distress or shock after a natural disaster, but those feelings will normally resolve themselves over time. You want to give your kids the space to express any distress that they're feeling, and it’s important you don't pretend that nothing has happened or shut down any conversation your child attempts to have about the event.

You do need to strike a balance here - talking too much about the event can be as problematic as talking about it too little. Try to avoid frequently taking your child's emotional temperature and asking if they're okay repeatedly, but let them know it's okay to discuss their feelings and take the time to normalise their response without dismissing or minimising them.

Put media coverage in context

Disasters attract media coverage and ongoing conversations within the community, which tends to last for days or even weeks after the event. To have the disaster as the focus of so much attention can be confusing, so you might want to take the opportunity put the ongoing interest in the disaster in context.

Take the time to let your kids know that natural disasters are rare, and the fact that they happen infrequently is why they attract so much attention. People are interested because it is out of the ordinary, not a regular occurrence.

A mother sits and talks to her young song on the couch, making him smile.

Be prepared to answer questions and explain what's happened

It isn't always easy for young children to articulate their feelings, or understand the unpredictable and chaotic nature of natural disasters. Be prepared to answer questions about what has happened several times and provide ongoing opportunities to talk.

Find out what your kids already think they know before you start answering, and take the opportunity to correct any misinformation or misunderstandings. Sometimes the memories of disaster, or the playground chatter that follows, can create a far more frightening image than the reality.

When you do answer questions, be honest and stick to the facts. Use language that's appropriate to your children's age and development, and don't provide any more detail than they ask for.

Getting professional help

For most children, the distress associated with a natural disaster will resolve with the passage of time, and your role as a parent is to watch for opportunities to talk and model the response you'd like your kids to have.

If you're concerned that any symptoms associated with their distress are not reducing, particularly around 2-3 months after things have returned to normal, seek out help.

Most children won't require psychological assistance to recover from shock and distress of a disaster, but if you're concerned that there might be a problem, help and information is available through a number of resources:

Birdie's Tree

Birdie's Tree is a set of resources developed by Children's Health Queensland to help infants and children understand and cope with natural disasters. Resources, games and storybooks for young people can be accessed through the Birdie's Tree webpage and used be parents, carers and teachers.

Information in this post has been adapted from resources prepared by Dr Vanessa Cobham, Advanced Psychologist, Child and Youth Mental Health Service (CYMHS), Children's Health Queensland Hospital and Health Service (CHQ HSS), Senior Lecturer University of Queensland.

Last updated: 22 November 2019