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By UNICEF Australia
7 January 2020

It is easy to feel overwhelmed and devastated by catastrophic scenes caused by natural disasters. 

Whether it's Australia’s vicious bushfires or devastating flooding, here are some tips to help guide those hard conversations with children.

Families across the country are on edge. Sometimes, children don’t have ways of understanding what they see and can be particularly vulnerable to feelings of anxiety, stress and sadness.

So how do we help our children cope with this unprecedented emergency? How do we make them feel safe?

UNICEF’s years of experience in providing counseling and emotional support to children impacted by disaster tells us that children and young people respond differently to disaster than adults. 

Children play at the show-grounds in the southern New South Wales town of Bega where they are camping after being evacuated from nearby sites affected by bushfires on December 31, 2019.
Children play at the show-grounds in the southern New South Wales town of Bega where they are camping after being evacuated from nearby sites affected by bushfires on December 31, 2019.
© UNICEF/UNI266318/Davey/AFP-Services

Some may react immediately with changes in behaviour. These changes may include acting out, becoming clingy or changes in sleep patterns or they may be inward focussed with the child becoming withdrawn and quiet.

Some children may show signs of difficulty at a later stage. Their needs will vary depending on their ages and how much they understand of what they see. 

But having an open, supportive discussion with your kids can help them understand, cope and even make a positive contribution. These conversations aren’t easy, but can be crucial to ensuring that children feel safe after a disaster.

Here is a guide for how to talk with children overwhelmed by natural disasters.

Child© UNICEF/UN025296/Gilbertson VII Photo

1. 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 talk 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.

2. Be honest, explain the truth

Children have a right to truthful information about what is happening in the world but adults also have a responsibility to keep them safe from distress. Use age-appropriate language, be mindful of their reactions and be sensitive to their level of anxiety. 

ABC’s Behind the News is a fantastic resource for explaining big events happening in the world right now. The 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.

3. Offer reassurance

Tell your children that 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.

4. 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 disaster 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.

5. Show them all the good people trying to help

It’s important for children 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 every day Australians showing compassion can be comforting and reassuring.

6. Show them how they can help

Talking to children and showing how they can help others can be empowering and a vital step 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, make posters or  any other creative ideas that spring to mind.

7. Take care of yourself

You’ll be better able to help your kids if you’re coping well too. Children will pick up on your own response to the news, so it helps them to 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 some extra help, get in touch with beyondblue or Lifeline.

Make time, however small, to do things you enjoy and join your kids in doing something constructive to help the situation.

Podcast cover - Disaster talks © UNICEF Australia

Disaster Talks

Australian National University Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network (ACATLGN) and UNICEF Australia are collaborating on a podcast titled Disaster Talks, about supporting and building the resilience of school communities in Australia to prepare and respond to a natural disaster. The series will share learnings, best practice and be a valuable resource for educators. It aims to shed light on the unique needs and rights of children in disasters and emergencies, before, during and after. 

More resources

  • The National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health (NWC) has put together a collection of evidence-based resources from the Centre’s Community Trauma Toolkit, developed together with the Australian National University's Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network. These materials focus on supporting children and families during and in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. 
  • While media coverage during times of disaster or traumatic events is important, it is also prolific and can focus on the most frightening aspects of the event. Adults need to be mindful of how much exposure children have to coverage on TV, radio or the internet. This factsheet will help adults to support children to cope with the media coverage they see of a disaster.  
  • Disasters and traumatic events are by nature, very stressful and it is normal to feel overwhelmed. However, it is important to remember that even after facing a disaster, most adults and children will cope and recover over time with the right help and support. This short video looks at how to support children immediately after a disaster or traumatic event.