Professor Brett McDermott is a former Director of Beyond Blue and a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist with significant experience in mental health disaster recovery. Here he looks at how we can support our children and their mental health during and after disasters such as the Australian bushfires.

Disasters affect us all in different ways and children can be particularly vulnerable to their mental health impacts. While some children will show few or limited signs of distress or discomfort during the Australian bushfire crisis, others might benefit more from our support, in both the short and long term.

Australian research on responses to disasters consistently shows children can experience intrusive, frightening memories, poor sleep or worries that the event may occur again. The good news is there are ways to help them cope. We can start by trying to look at these events through their eyes and taking action, even before disaster unfolds.

Easing the perception of risk

In many cases, a child’s perception of risk is not based on actual events, but rather whether they thought they were going to die. It has been consistently demonstrated that children who thought they or their parents were at risk of dying developed more symptoms of distress. So, it’s useful to know there are steps we can take to ease a child’s perceived risk. Children are comforted knowing the family has a safety plan and that an adult is monitoring the situation. In many ways, actions speak louder than words alone. For instance, they will feel less anxious knowing that the car is ready to go, seeing that an exit route has been planned and understanding that the destination is safe.

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Children’s perception of risk is influenced by the behaviours and communication of adults. Anxiety can be contagious. If we as parents appear frightened, sweaty and agitated, our children will notice and behave accordingly. Some of us may talk more when anxious and our speech may become ‘pressured’ or we might constantly discuss the bushfires. Our children will notice that our communication is different. Conversely, some of us may become more quiet, shortening our replies to questions or occasionally not speaking at all. Again, our children will pick up on the change in behaviour and interpret the situation as being so bad that their parent or caregiver cannot even talk about it. 

More broadly, maintaining our routines, however big or small, will help emphasise normal functioning. Being aware of these things means we can try to avoid exposing our children to our own anxiety. It is important to maintain regular behaviour, communication and routine as best possible, as it will help reassure children that there is no need to be distressed. 

Bushfires mental health

Helping children process information

Children don’t deal with information the same way as adults. The bushfires have received extensive media coverage given the disaster has directly impacted five Australian states for more than a month. Mobile phones have enabled graphic and distressing video footage, in some cases of near-death experiences. Pre-school and early primary school children have great difficulty processing this information. They struggle with the reality that the danger is often far away. They struggle with timelines, often unable to understand that while some footage appears in real-time, much of what they are watching is several hours or even days  old. They struggle with perspective, as some footage may create a perception that the people involved will soon be engulfed, where the reality is that they are filming from a safe distance. 

Bushfire

Helping children deal with the information they absorb is crucial, so parents and caregivers should take an active role in their children’s media consumption. By watching footage together, we can provide context and assist with the processing of information. We can reassure them, for instance, that the fire they are seeing was ‘last week not today’; that it was ‘not in our state’; or that while we know the bushfire is in our area ‘firefighters are doing a great job of controlling it’. For families in high-risk areas, children are comforted by concise statements such as ‘we will get a text if we need to leave’.

Many children will be distressed by this bushfire disaster, but there are clear strategies to promote resilience. How we deal with and communicate our own feelings is crucial, and how we help children process information is also very important.

For more information on supporting children and young people after a bushfire, see:

Be You resource pack: Bushfires response

Supporting your child after a natural disaster (headspace)

Related reading: Mental health and personal safety in the face of the bushfire crisis

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