When natural disaster strikes or conflict breaks out, these are the ways you can help the young people in your life cope with their changing world.
From Australian bushfires and devastating floods to conflict in Ukraine and Sudan, when war breaks out, or natural disaster strikes, the chaos and insecurity that follows can leave children and young people feeling scared and overwhelmed, even long after the event.
Talking to the young people in your life about the events and their feelings is the first step on their journey to processing their changing world.
UNICEF’s years of experience providing counselling and emotional support to children and their families impacted by disasters tells us that children and young people respond differently to adults. Whether your young person has been directly or indirectly affected, the below tools and strategies will help you navigate this time with patience, understanding and empathy.Quick link: Teacher resources
What behaviour change should I look out for?
When an emergency strikes, some children and young people react immediately with changes in their behaviour. These changes may include acting out, becoming more attached, their sleeping patterns change, or the child becoming withdrawn and quiet.
Some children may first show signs of difficulty at a later stage. Their needs will vary depending on their ages and how much they understand what they see.
But having an open, supportive discussion with the children in your life can help them understand, cope, and contribute positively. These conversations aren’t easy but can be crucial to ensuring that children feel safe after a disaster.
How to talk to children about emergencies
Focus on the child, not the distress
Start by asking your kids’ permission to talk about the issue. Follow their lead, and if they don’t want to discuss it, don’t push it.
Some children may be eager to talk about their concerns, while others might find it difficult. Just remind your children that they can speak to you, their teachers and other trusted adults whenever they like.
Drawing, stories and other activities may help to open up a discussion. Don’t dismiss or avoid their concerns. Be sure to acknowledge their feelings and assure them it’s natural to feel sad or scared about these things.
Be honest, explain the truth
Children have a right to truthful information about what is happening in the world, but adults are also responsible for keeping them safe from distress. Use age-appropriate language, be mindful of their reactions and be sensitive to their level of anxiety.
Our child-friendly guide to global emergencies on UNICEF Youth provides fast facts about current emergencies. ABC’s Behind the News is also a fantastic resource for explaining big events happening in the world right now. They explain situations in the eyes of children, using safe images and language that is easy to understand.
If you don’t know the answer to their questions, use it as an opportunity to explore the answers together.
For parents, tell your children you love them and remind them that the adults in their lives are doing everything they can to keep them safe. Plan to spend extra time with them as they get past the distress and anxiety. Children are resilient and hopeful.
For teachers, make some time within your class to have a discussion. ABC’s Behind the News is great resource to help explain situations in the eyes of children, using safe images and language that is easy to understand. Follow up with any students separately who may be struggling, and flag it with the student’s carer.
Help children get back to their normal routine
We know from our work on the ground that it is extremely important for children affected by disasters to get back to playing and learning so that they can regain a sense of normalcy and routine.
In crisis spots around the world, UNICEF sets up child-friendly spaces where children have a place to feel safe, learn and play. Help your child regain a sense of normalcy by encouraging them to take part in activities they enjoy, like playing with friends, reading and drawing.
Show them all the good people trying to help
Children need to know about the acts of bravery, generosity and kindness from ordinary people trying to help families impacted by natural disasters.
Sharing stories of volunteer first responders, community leaders and everyday Australians showing compassion can be comforting and reassuring.
It is ok to seek professional help
If you feel your child could benefit from professional help, contact your local GP for a referral to a counsellor or psychologist who specialises in children and you people. For more immediate help, you can encourage your child to call Kids Helpline, which is great for all ages, or Headspace, which is ideal for teenagers and young people.
Take care of yourself
You’ll be better able to help your kids if you’re coping well. Children will pick up on your response to the news, so it helps them know you’re calm and in control.
If you’re feeling anxious or upset, take time for yourself and reach out to other family, friends and trusted people in your community. If you want extra help, contact Beyond Blue or Lifeline.
Make time, however small, to do things you enjoy and join your kids in doing something constructive to help the situation.
Create an emergency plan
Whether its bushfires, flooding or a storm, emergencies can strike at any time without notice, especially if you live or work in areas that are prone to these natural events. Whether at home or in the classroom, talking with children and getting them involved in creating an emergency plan can help them feel reassured and provides them with a sense of control in the face of the unknown. Learn more about how you can prepare for an emergency.
Ways your child can make a difference when an emergency happens.
Talking to children and showing how they can help others can be empowering and vital to restoring confidence. Get together and brainstorm ideas about what small or big actions you or they can take. Together, your kids and their friends can raise money, support each other, make posters or any other creative ideas that spring to mind.
Get involved with a local group or organisation which is active in an area you are passionate about. Helping where you can be a great way to make a difference.
Raise your voice
You can raise awareness of the emergency that is happening by talking to family and friends and sharing on social media.
You can help organisations like UNICEF be there during times of emergency by starting your own fundraising event at school or your sports club.