Common responses among primary school-aged children who experience a bushfire

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource explores common responses among primary school-aged children to a bushfire. It is designed to help parents identify the signs their child might need extra support to recover following a bushfire event. It has been developed with the guidance of family members with lived experience, practitioners and researchers.


Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. For the purposes of easy reading, the term ‘parent’ encompasses the biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, as well as individuals who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child.

How you and other close family and friends support your child during and after a bushfire makes a difference. Your child’s response to the bushfire will be significantly influenced by their age and where they’re at in their development, as well as any previous experiences of disaster (both direct and indirect) and their overall sense of safety. They will need time, nurturing, patience and a stable routine in order to recover and thrive.

After the initial sadness and distress of living through a bushfire, most children will begin to recover over time. Some children may even feel more confident or experience other positive changes. However, your child will still need your continued reassurance, stability and support. For practical tips on how to help your child to cope following a bushfire, please check out our advice for the weeks following a bushfire and later in the recovery phase.

Common responses among children who experience a bushfire

Despite your care and support, your child may still experience difficulties following the bushfire. If they’re in early primary school (aged around 6–8 years), you might notice the following responses:

  • Mood or personality changes.
  • Behaviours usually seen in much younger children (for example, bedwetting, tantrums).
  • Increased tension, irritability and aggression.
  • Increased sensitivity to small noises or movements.
  • Increased clinginess or fear of being alone.
  • Fear of the dark, nightmares or trouble falling/staying asleep.
  • Trouble concentrating, a lack of motivation, or a tendency to ‘blank out’ for long periods of time.
  • Reluctance to go to school or see others.
  • Acting out by hurting others or themselves.
  • Changes in normal eating or sleeping patterns.
  • New fears developing or old fears coming back (for example, nightmares or a fear of the dark).
  • Lack of eye contact or a ‘spaced out’ look.
  • Anxiety or worries about lots of things.
  • Efforts to avoid reminders of the event.
  • Feelings of self-blame and guilt about what happened.
  • Bodily aches and pains (for example, headaches, tummy aches, limb aches).
  • Changes, delays or a noticeable regression in speech, memory or learning.

‘I didn’t talk about it for about five years. I avoided it as much as I could. And I kind of wish I did talk about it earlier because it does actually help. I just refused to do it, thinking it wasn’t going to get any better and it wasn’t going to help me.’

– April, teenager

In the following video (5 minutes, 20 seconds), you will hear April looking back on her family’s survival of the Strathewen bushfires and how they recovered to find happiness and feel safe again.

In addition to the above, if your child is in late primary or early high school (aged around 9–12 years) you might notice the following:

  • Relationship difficulties with friends or family (for example, becoming withdrawn, not speaking to others or seeing their friends as often).
  • Reckless or harmful behaviours, such as taking risks or getting into fights.
  • A new awareness of death and mortality, including an increased interest in talking about death.
  • Suicidal ideation.
  • Rebellion against or disdain for authority.
  • Academic difficulties or trouble at school.
  • Behaviour that doesn’t match their developmental stage (for example, bedwetting, tantrums, substance use, staying out late, sexualised behaviour).

It’s important to remain curious in the weeks, months and even years ahead. Check in regularly with your child about how they’re feeling and keep an eye out for changes in their behaviour. Your child may not have the words to describe their feelings, so their behaviour can be your best insight into what’s going on for them.

In the following video (18 seconds), Strathewen Primary School teacher Diane Phillips describes what she noticed in her students in the weeks and months after the fires.

Signs your primary school-aged child may need additional support

It’s common for some children to seem fine at first, but then become distressed at a later point. Some children might experience distress even if they did not experience the event personally.

Your child may need some extra support if they’re having difficulties which:

  • persist for more than a month or worsen over time
  • represent a change from their normal behaviour
  • are more intense or frequent compared to children of the same age
  • cause their behaviours to disrupt their classroom/others on a regular basis
  • prevent them from engaging in age-appropriate tasks
  • occur in multiple contexts (for example, both at school and at home)
  • are making you feel distressed or concerned about your family’s wellbeing.

Your child may also ask you directly to get them some help. It’s important to respond in a way that is supportive, and to work with your child to find the support that will work best for them.

Who can help?

Your general practitioner (GP) is the best place to start – they can offer information, resources and advice on which types of professional help can best support your child’s recovery. Learn more about the role of a GP in this video.

Chances are you’re also dealing with your own feelings of grief, anger, exhaustion and loss following the bushfire. It can be tough to juggle your own responses and recovery needs with your responsibilities/roles as a parent, partner and community member. But it’s important to remember that you can’t pour from an empty cup. Taking care of your own wellbeing (‘filling your cup’) is key to your child’s mental health and recovery.

If you need support, please reach out to a trusted friend, family member, GP or health professional. You can also find more information and tips for taking care of yourself during this challenging time in our fact sheet, Looking after your wellbeing following a bushfire.

Where to get support

If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 000.

Healthdirect’s National Health Services Directory can help you to find a GP, counsellor, psychologist or other health professional in your local area.

Lifeline offers free crisis support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can call Lifeline on 13 11 14, text 0477 131 114 or chat with a trained Crisis supporter online.

The Suicide Call Back Service provides 24/7 telephone, online-chat and video counselling to people at risk of suicide, those bereaved by suicide and carers of someone who is suicidal. Call 1300 659 467 or visit the Suicide Callback Service website.

Kids Helpline offers free 24/7 support for both parents and children. You can call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, chat with a counsellor online, or send Kids Helpline an email.

headspace has a range of free online and phone support services to support young people.

13YARN is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-run crisis service. Their Crisis Supporters are available to yarn whenever you need them (24/7) – just call 13 92 76.

The Raising Children Network has a comprehensive list of national and state-based parent support helplines and hotlines.

Life in Mind has a bushfire support services card you can download and print.

This resource contains content adapted from resources originally co-developed by Emerging Minds and the Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network (ACATLGN) / Australian National University (ANU) as part of the Community Trauma Toolkit. This includes footage from the documentary, Strathewen community: A bushfire recovery story 10 years in the making, which was co-produced by ACATLGN/ANU, Artist Made Productions and Emerging Minds.

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