Common responses among teenagers who experience a bushfire

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource explores common responses to a bushfire among teenagers. It is designed to help parents identify the signs their teenager 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.

Teenagers can be highly vulnerable to the negative effects of traumatic events such as bushfires. But it can be tough to spot the signs that your child is struggling. No two young people will respond in the same way, and some common trauma responses are similar to normal developmental traits in these teenage years.

It’s important to remember that children of all ages – including adolescents – will need time, nurturing, patience and a stable routine in order to recover and thrive. Social support and peer groups will also be crucial in helping your teenager cope. For practical tips on how to support your child following a bushfire, please check out our advice for the weeks following the bushfire and later in the recovery phase.

After the initial sadness and distress of living through a bushfire event, most young people will begin to recover over time. Some may even feel more confident or experience other positive changes. However, your teen will still need your continued reassurance, stability and support.

Common responses among teenagers who experience a bushfire

Despite your care and support, your child may still experience difficulties following the bushfire. If you have a teenager, you might notice the following common responses to a bushfire:

  • Re-experiencing – for example, distressing memories that pop into their head during the day, nightmares, emotional and physical distress around reminders of the bushfire, repeated discussion about the event.
  • Avoidance – for example, refusal to participate in school activities related to the disaster, refusal to talk about the bushfire, memory blanks for important aspects of the event.
  • Hyperarousal – for example, difficulty controlling their anger, trouble concentrating, feeling overly alert and on edge, being easily startled.
  • Emotional difficulties – for example, appearing ‘flat’ or emotionally ‘numb’, showing a limited range of emotions, feeling disconnected from their body or the world around them.
  • Emotional distress – for example, self-blame and guilt, mood swings and irritability, loss of self-esteem and confidence, worries that they’re ‘going crazy’ or are ‘abnormal’.
  • Behaviour changes – for example, angry outbursts, aggression, refusal to obey rules or instructions.
  • Memory difficulties – for example, forgetting certain details about an event (or about the whole event altogether), forgetting personal information.
  • Academic difficulties – for example, missing classes, difficulty concentrating, loss of motivation, trouble keeping up with their workload, confrontational behaviour and challenges with authority figures.
  • No longer participating in activities they used to enjoy, such as playing sports, drawing, listening to music or playing a musical instrument.
  • Increase in physical complaints, such as headaches, stomach or body aches or rashes.
  • Using alcohol or drugs to help numb painful emotions.
  • Risky or reckless behaviours, such as having unprotected sex, drink-driving, getting into fights, riding without a helmet.
  • Suicidal or self-harming thoughts or behaviours.
  • Relationship difficulties with friends or family – for example, becoming withdrawn, avoiding social events/interactions, aggressive or controlling behaviour.
  • Appetite changes.
  • Loss of excitement and hope for the future.
  • Sleep issues – for example, nightmares, trouble falling or staying asleep, excessive sleeping (during the day and night).

It’s important to remain curious in the weeks, months and even years ahead. Check in regularly with your teen about how they’re feeling and keep an eye out for changes in their behaviour. They may not have the words to describe their feelings (especially if they’re also experiencing mental health difficulties), so their behaviour can be your best insight into what’s going on for them.

Signs your teenager may need additional support

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

Your teenager 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 young people 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.

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 teen’s recovery. (Learn more about the role of a GP in this video.) However, your teenager may want to make their own decisions about their care. In this case, it’s important to provide them with resources around seeking help (like those listed at the end of this tip sheet) and be available to support them when they’re ready.

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.

Useful links for parents of teenagers who have experienced a bushfire

Useful links for teenagers who have experienced a bushfire

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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