Common responses among toddlers and preschoolers who experience a bushfire

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource looks at common responses among toddlers and preschoolers who experience a bushfire. It is designed to help parents identify the signs their young child might need extra support to recover. 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 to recover and thrive.

After the initial sadness and distress of living through a bushfire event, 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 the bushfire and later in the recovery phase.

Common responses among toddlers and preschoolers who experience a bushfire

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

  • Increased tension or an inability to relax or calm down.
  • Increased sensitivity to small noises or movements.
  • Loss of skills they recently developed, like feeding themselves or using the toilet.
  • Increased fussiness and clinginess. This can be a sign of a deeper fear of separation and is particularly common among children who were separated from their parents during the bushfire.
  • Crying all the time or with increased intensity.
  • Avoiding new things or new places.
  • Avoiding or getting frightened by reminders of the event.
  • A visible lack of interest or energy; seeming limp.
  • Reduced interest in things or a ‘spaced out’ stare.
  • Resistance to directions or requests.
  • Experiencing colds, headaches or tummy aches more often.
  • Reliving the trauma by drawing the event, playing ‘disaster’, or repeatedly asking questions or talking about the bushfire.
  • Blaming themselves and feeling guilty about the bushfire or making up stories about ‘why’ it happened.
  • Sleep problems (for example, being afraid to go to sleep, needing a nightlight or having nightmares).

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 emotions and 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.

Signs your toddler or preschooler 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 and concerned about your family’s wellbeing.

Who can help?

Your general practitioner (GP) is the best place to start – they can provide information, resources and advice on which type of professional support can best help 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 other 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

Birdie’s Tree offers a range of wonderful resources, in multiple languages, for toddlers and preschoolers who’ve experienced trauma. Developed by the Queensland Centre for Perinatal and Infant Mental Health, it features games, information and an online storybook specifically for children who’ve been through 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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