Disaster preparedness with a focus on infants, children and families

Emerging Minds, Australia, June 2024

Resource Summary

This practice paper is part of a series of resources on child-centred and family-focused disaster preparedness, response and recovery. Find the full suite of papers in Supporting infants and children in disasters: A practice guide, or explore more tools for supporting children and families who experience disasters in our Community Trauma Toolkit.

This practice paper aims to help practitioners understand the importance of disaster preparedness for not only increasing safety and protecting lives when a disaster occurs, but facilitating the recovery of individuals, families and communities.

It describes practice strategies to enhance disaster planning in services, agencies and organisations and ensure they are inclusive and responsive to the needs of infants, children and families. It recognises that while emergency management is a responsibility of governments and nominated agencies, disaster preparedness is a collective responsibility. As a practitioner, you can make the needs of children and families visible in emergency plans and engage them in preparedness actions.

This resource also offers practical advice for supporting the disaster preparedness of the children and families you work with.

Key messages

  • ‘Preparedness’ refers to actions taken ahead of time to be ready for a potential disaster. It involves proactively developing the knowledge, skills and capacity to anticipate, respond to and recover from a disaster.
  • While many government entities have legislative or regulatory responsibilities as part of disaster planning and management, preparing for disasters is something all individuals, families/households, services and communities can and should engage in.
  • Preparedness strategies are designed to increase both physical and psychological safety, reduce threat and support response and recovery.
  • As many Australian family households include dependent infants and children, it’s critical to anticipate and plan for their unique needs in the event of a disaster.
  • A child-centred and family-focused approach to preparedness means considering the increased risks in a disaster faced by infants, children and pregnant people, and ensuring emergency plans include provisions to respond to these risks.
  • Preparedness also involves building the capacity and skills of children and parents in advance of a disaster, and supporting families in their preparedness actions, both practical and psychological.
  • Psychological preparedness is crucial, as it can prevent or lessen the toll of a disaster on the emotional and psychological wellbeing of people in an affected community. As a practitioner, it is important for you to feel safe and supported to work with infants and children in the context of a disaster. This practice guide offers advice for considering your own mental health and ensuring your capacity to support the wellbeing of others.


Who is this resource for?

This practice paper is for anyone who is, or may be in the future:

  • a member of a team involved in emergency planning for an agency, organisation, school or service
  • providing advice to an entity about child-centred, family-focused preparedness for disasters, including developing an emergency plan
  • advocating for disaster preparedness processes that consider the needs of and engage with infants, children and families
  • engaging with community members, including parents and families (and possibly their children) to support their disaster preparedness.

This includes practitioners and workers, leaders and volunteers in:

  • health services
  • social and community services
  • education
  • first response and emergency services
  • government (policymaking and agencies)
  • non-government organisations; and
  • community-led initiatives.

For ease of reading, we refer to individuals in all these roles as ‘practitioners’.



The terms ‘children’, ‘parents’ and ‘practitioners’ are used throughout this resource and we define them in the following ways:

Children: includes newborn infants, babies and children up to 12 years of age.

Parents: 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.

Practitioners: all individuals with a role that involves or might involve supporting infants, children, parents and/or families in the context of a disaster of any kind.



Disasters and their impacts can be unpredictable and devastating. More frequent and severe disasters, growing urbanisation and socioeconomic stresses are increasing the adverse impacts of disasters in communities across Australia (Deloitte Access Economics, 2024). Understanding the disaster risk and taking action before a disaster occurs is key to preventing and mitigating adverse impacts for individuals and communities. As part of this, identifying and planning for the unique needs of infants and children must be integral to all disaster risk prevention and preparedness processes.

Preparedness encompasses various actions taken ahead of time to be ready for a potential disaster and mitigate its impacts. It involves proactively developing the knowledge, capabilities and capacity to anticipate, respond to and recover from a disaster, and often includes learnings from past disaster experiences.

Everyone has an important role to play in disaster preparedness. As a practitioner, you can help to develop emergency plans and preparedness activities for your particular sector, agency, organisation or school/early learning service, or advocate for the needs of infants, children and families to be considered in preparedness. You can also support children and families you work with in their own disaster preparedness activities.

Best practice preparedness incorporates strategies designed to increase both physical and psychological safety, reduce threat and support response and recovery. Strategies may support preparedness in a practical or psychological way, or both. The inclusion of psychosocial preparedness strategies can prevent or lessen the toll of a disaster on the mental health and wellbeing of all people in an affected community, including infants and children (Richardson et al., 2023).

Preparedness is not only about reducing the impact of disasters. It is a way of anticipating disaster response and recovery, which helps people cope better with future challenges and emergencies. As the risk of disasters continues to rise, preparedness is an ongoing process of learning from and preparing for disasters – and through that process, building the strengths, resources and resilience of children, families and communities in readiness for future emergencies.

Why we must focus on infants, children and families in disaster preparedness

Research shows that in the event of a disaster, infants, children and young people are at increased risk of harm (Lai & LaGreca, 2020). Children have particular emotional, social and physical capabilities and needs that place them at greater risk of mental health difficulties related to potentially traumatic experiences. However, it is important to understand that not all infants and children who experience a disaster will experience harm or traumatic stress responses. To learn more about the risk and protective factors for infant and child mental health in the context of disasters, check out our practice paper:

Infants’ and children’s earlier stage of physical, cognitive and emotional development makes them less equipped to deal with the physical and psychological stresses of a disaster, and more reliant on the support of caring, trustworthy adults. If their caregivers are adversely affected, infants and children become particularly vulnerable to ongoing mental health difficulties (Schonfeld et al., 2015).

Being responsive to the needs of infants, children and families – including a lens on their individual skills, resources and vulnerabilities – is an essential part of disaster preparedness. This includes engaging children and their families safely, sensitively and appropriately in preparedness activities, to equip them with knowledge and skills that are beneficial for their ongoing mental health and wellbeing.

Child-centred and family-focused disaster preparedness

A child-centred and family-focused approach to disaster preparedness means considering the increased risks faced by infants, children and pregnant people, and centring their needs in the planning process. In addition, it is important to focus on the whole family’s needs, including the interactions and connections between family members and how they impact an infant’s or child’s experience of a disaster.

Practitioners can support government, non-government and private organisations and services to bring a focus on the needs of infants, children and families to disaster preparedness processes and initiatives. They can do this by:

  • developing an understanding of potential disasters and the risks to infants and children, as well as their parents. This includes considering their risk of being exposed to potential hazards, their vulnerabilities, strengths, capabilities and resources
  • identifying local services and practitioners with the knowledge, skills and capacity to respond to infants’, children’s and families’ needs before, during and after a disaster
  • establishing roles, responsibilities and resourcing to support infants, children and families in anticipation of exposure to and recovery from a disaster
  • understanding how to reduce both physical and psychosocial risks to infants and children in the case of a disaster and building capacity in this area. For example, practising evacuation drills and learning strategies for disaster response that will meet the needs of infants, children and families
  • building networks and collaborative partnerships across organisations and sectors, with a sense of shared responsibility and a coordinated approach
  • sharing evidence of how a child-centred and family-focused approach to preparedness enhances individual, family and community outcomes.

Child-centred and family-focused preparedness also involves building the capacity and skills of children and parents in advance of a disaster. This involves sensitively, safely and appropriately engaging families and children as active participants and contributors in preparedness initiatives.

From around two or three years of age, children start building the knowledge and skills that underpin preparedness. This process continues throughout childhood and adolescence. Most children attending early learning centres and primary schools in Australia:

  • develop an understanding of weather and challenging environmental conditions
  • learn what to do if there is a house fire or bushfire
  • practice invacuations and evacuations
  • get to know the different types of first responders and emergency personnel who are there to help them in the event of a disaster
  • learn strategies to keep calm if they are feeling unsafe or frightened during an emergency
  • have opportunities to share their ideas and perspectives on disaster preparedness (in developmentally and age-appropriate ways).

Outside of education settings, parents, extended family members and peers – as well as first responders and emergency management services – also play a role in supporting children to develop this important set of knowledge and skills.

‘[I recall] growing up and practising for this. I remember feeling at the time a sense of – “I’ve got this, I know what to do.” I felt as capable, in some cases maybe more capable than, the adults around me to sort of navigate what was happening … [I had a] sense of feeling in control of a situation that was ultimately, you know, not in anyone’s control, which I think was really helpful.’

– Ellie, reflecting on her experience in the Black Saturday bushfires in regional Victoria at age 11 (ACATLGN, 2024)

Why involve children in disaster preparedness?

Part of child-centred preparedness is recognising, supporting and advocating for children’s agency and participation in disaster planning and preparedness activities. When children are involved and able to contribute their ideas, disaster plans can better recognise and incorporate actions and interventions to meet their needs.

Children have a right to be appropriately involved in decisions that will affect them (United Nations General Assembly, 1989). They can be active agents in disaster preparation and recovery in their families and communities. When done in a safe, developmentally appropriate and sensitive way, involving children in practical planning also supports their psychological preparedness.

There is evidence that recovery is enhanced when individuals and communities affected by disasters can exercise self-determination (AIDR, 2018). Children have skills and know-how that can positively contribute to disaster preparedness for their families and whole communities. Given the opportunity, children can be active collaborators in disaster preparedness (relative to their age), helping their family, school or community to identify and navigate risks. To engage children as genuine participants in disaster preparedness, it is important to prioritise their needs, rights, perspectives, and experiences.


Engaging children and families in disaster preparedness

Some ways you can foster engagement with children and families in disaster preparedness:

  • Increase children’s and families’ awareness of likely hazards by providing developmentally and age-appropriate resources and forums for discussion. Help them to understand the potential for disasters in their community and the benefits of being prepared.
  • Ensure families are aware of community-wide emergency plans and site-specific disaster plans (e.g. at a hospital, the child’s school or early learning service). Where possible, provide opportunities for children (as appropriate) and adult family members to contribute to these plans.
  • Link and refer to services that support children and families, to ensure they have the resources they need to build their social capital and resilience in advance of a disaster.
  • Share information about the community’s assets, strengths and capabilities that will support the safety and wellbeing of infants and children, and their families.
  • Encourage families to make a household emergency plan and ensure each family member (including children) knows their role and responsibilities if there is a disaster. Provide resources to help parents involve their children in developing the plan in safe and engaging ways.
  • If you are responsible for the care of children in your organisation (e.g. education settings, hospitals, community programs), practise an emergency or evacuation plan with children and offer feedback and reassurance.
  • Support psychological preparedness by teaching children coping strategies and support parents to manage their own and their children’s reactions.
  • Engage and build a shared agenda with all the important adults in an infant’s or child’s life.
  • Promote the benefits of involving children and families in disaster preparedness.

Considering ‘the whole child’ and their contexts

It is important to be sensitive to the characteristics and contexts of each child when considering how and when to involve them in disaster preparedness. The needs of children in emergencies will vary according to their age and developmental progress, along with any individual considerations such as neurodivergence, disability, medical conditions, particular risks (e.g. of racism or discrimination) and where they live (e.g. in remote areas or in residential out-of-home care).

Always consider whether, and the extent to which, children of different ages and capabilities can be involved in different elements of disaster preparedness. Some children may find preparedness activities difficult, particularly those who have been through a disaster or had other adverse experiences. Look out for signs a child is uncomfortable participating – they might try to show you using words, or through their behaviour at home or at school/early learning.

It is also crucial to remember that children’s perceptions of risks and of the likelihood and extent of disasters may be very different to adults’ perceptions. Consider the risk of creating unnecessary anxiety or fear (intentionally or otherwise) when talking with children about potential disasters.

When engaging children in disaster preparedness activities, it is essential to also engage with their families. For example, school-based programs or activities in an early learning service should be complemented with information for parents about the program or activity.

Be mindful of what children may be asked, or choose, to ‘take away’ from their participation in preparedness activities at school/early learning or other settings. For example, a child questioning their family’s disaster planning and evacuation kit might be challenging for a parent who has limited resources to ensure preparedness. Family-focused preparedness approaches engage and promote the agency of children in safe and appropriate ways and support family communication and connection.

Children may feel like adults are not doing enough to prepare for potential disasters, especially in the face of increasing climate-related risks, so it’s important to reassure them that concerned adults are taking action. It is important to help children recognise the adults in their life who are responsible for disaster preparedness in their home, school/early learning service and community. It is also reassuring for them to learn how workers such as first responders and educators protect their community in the event of a disaster. Supporting children to play a role in disaster preparedness, but also know there is a whole community of people working to keep them safe, is essential for children’s mental health and wellbeing.

Reflection questions

Take a moment to consider the following questions:

  • In your role, how can you address the needs of infants, children and families in disaster preparedness processes and initiatives?
  • What strategies can you include that support child and family participation in disaster preparedness?

Disaster preparedness is everyone’s responsibility

Individuals, households, services and communities all have an essential role to play in ensuring infants, children and families are considered in disaster preparedness. In your role, this might mean revising plans to ensure they are child-centred and family-focused, or expanding your focus from supporting infants, children or families in general, to recognising and addressing their needs in the context of disaster preparedness.

If you work with infants, children or families in your day-to-day role, it is important to be aware of common reactions to potentially traumatic events and consider what you can do to support your clients before, during and after a disaster. You can make significant contributions to your own organisational emergency planning processes, bringing your knowledge of child development and ‘what works’ to support the wellbeing of infants, children, parents and families. Further, you may look for opportunities to participate in disaster planning and preparation initiatives, at a service, community or even a state and national level.

Depending on your profession, training and organisation, a shift in practice may be required to keep infants and children in mind when planning and preparing for disasters. A collaborative approach that involves partnering across professional disciplines and service sectors will ensure people with different types of experience can come together to support child-centred and family-focused approaches. For example, if you work in emergency management or first response services, you might seek advice and contributions on children’s developmental needs from educators and child and family health, community and social service practitioners. It is well recognised that preparing and planning for disasters is a shared responsibility. Remember that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ – and to support their safety and mental health through disasters.

Parents and families also have a role to play in emergency planning and other preparedness activities that relate to their family – and specifically their children. This includes preparedness actions in their home, workplace and places where their children learn or play – such as education settings and health and community services. Organisations and governments should also invite parents and families to share their experiences and contribute to emergency and disaster management planning.

Ensuring children’s and families’ safety and wellbeing in disaster preparedness

Considering and supporting the needs of infants and children in disaster preparedness can be highly rewarding work, but it can also be demanding and emotionally taxing. Research has shown that working in a context where infants and children are at risk of harm increases the practitioner’s risk of psychological harm (Ireland & Huxley, 2018).

It is important to acknowledge that you need to feel safe and supported to work with infants and children in the context of a disaster. Before you begin any preparedness activities, consider the potential impacts on your own wellbeing, know what support is available in your workplace or organisation, and plan the strategies you will use to safeguard your wellbeing and support the wellbeing of others.


Looking after your wellbeing

Monitor your health and wellbeing and respond early if you notice any changes. Acknowledge that you may need to withdraw from activities if you feel your wellbeing and capability may be compromised.

In anticipation of a disaster, your own practical and psychological preparedness is crucial – particularly if your role is likely to involve directly providing care and support to children and families during and/or after a disaster, or you’re a parent yourself. It is difficult to work when you are not sure of your own family’s safety, so it’s important to have your own household plan, including how you will manage your family’s needs and care during a disaster. Explain the plan to your children, including what your work will be and when they can expect to see you again. The following resource has useful advice for all practitioners who may be providing ‘frontline’ support during a disaster:

To support the psychological preparedness of parents and children effectively and safely, it is important to have the knowledge and skills to recognise and mitigate distress, work within your scope of practice and your organisation’s policies, and be aware of the resources and services available in your community. To do this, we recommend you:

  • review your professional learning and development regularly
  • access relevant resources, training and supervision; and
  • consult with experienced peers or supervisors.

Your wellbeing is essential to your capacity to support infants, children and families at all times, but particularly in an emergency or crisis.

Protecting and supporting the wellbeing of others

It is important to be mindful that talking about or planning for a disaster can trigger distress, fear or other emotional reactions in someone who has experienced or is currently experiencing adversity. This may include children and families, but also your colleagues in your organisation or partnering agencies. This is a particular risk for children, families and practitioners who have experienced/lost a loved one in a disaster.

While engaging children in disaster planning and preparedness is encouraged, it is important to understand that there are individuals, cohorts and even whole communities where, for the reasons outlined above, participating is potentially harmful. A trauma-informed approach to disaster preparedness involves thinking about a child’s (or adult’s) whole ecology, environment and their experiences, observing their engagement and behaviour, and being prepared with strategies to prevent harm.

You may be aware of previous disasters in a community in which you live or are working, but in other settings it may not be possible or appropriate to identify an individual’s experiences of adversity. Therefore, it’s crucial to consider the measures you can put in place to ensure the psychological safety of anyone you are supporting, advising or collaborating with in disaster preparedness and planning. For instance, this could include offering disaster preparedness as an opt-in activity.

Strategies for child-centred emergency planning

‘Emergency planning’ is an essential aspect of disaster preparedness. It helps build readiness to respond to a disaster and manage the transition to support recovery afterwards. Emergency planning includes:

  • identifying hazards, risks and consequences
  • documenting and delivering risk reduction (prevention and mitigation) strategies
  • making arrangements for preparedness, response and relief, and recovery in anticipation of disasters.

The Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience Emergency Planning Handbook provides nationally-agreed principles for good practice in emergency planning. It outlines the emergency planning process, the potential elements of an emergency plan, and the actions needed for implementing, monitoring and evaluating the plan. This practice paper provides complementary information about core strategies for disaster planning and preparedness that are child-centred and family-focused.

It is important that emergency planning involves preparing for a disaster and preparing for recovery as complementary and interdependent aspects of preparedness. Preparing for a disaster can reduce the severity and duration of the recovery process, while preparing for recovery can enhance the resilience and adaptability of the affected populations after the threat has passed.

While it’s not possible to plan for every scenario and individual reaction, considering the needs of infants, children and families in emergency planning can help to anticipate and mitigate the risks of disaster exposure and enhance disaster response and recovery.

It is also important to acknowledge that children experiencing family adversity, or those with pre-existing mental health difficulties, disability or a medical condition, will be at greater risk of adverse outcomes during and after a disaster. Children and families already facing systemic or structural inequities may also be at greater risk in a disaster. This includes children who:

  • identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander
  • are from a migrant or culturally and linguistically diverse background
  • live in rural or remote areas
  • are in families struggling with financial difficulties or experiencing homelessness
  • are exposed to family and domestic violence
  • are involved in the child safety or foster care system
  • have very limited resources, including social capital (relationships, support networks and community connectedness).


Developing child-centred and family-focused emergency plans

Emergency planning is a collaborative process within an organisation, entity or community. It involves identifying and documenting strategies for preventing, preparing for, responding to, and recovering from an emergency event. Effective and comprehensive emergency planning aims to reduce the impacts of disasters on individuals, communities and the environment – both in regard to the disaster itself and its consequences.

It is important that emergency plans for households, local communities, organisations and at the state/territory and national levels, are inclusive of all Australians, of all ages. This involves identifying and documenting strategies that are responsive to the needs of infants, children and families. Child-centred, family-focused emergency planning ensures the unique risks and needs of infants and children are factored into prevention and preparedness efforts before disasters, as well as planning for response and recovery. It involves organisations engaging with adults who play an important role in the lives of children and parents, to identify and address the specific risks, needs, capacities, ideas and preferences of children in different contexts and situations.

If you have the skills, experience and support to collaborate with children and their families, inviting them to contribute to organisational or service-level emergency planning is part of a child-centred approach. However, engagement of children must be undertaken in a way that is safe, sensitive and developmentally and age-appropriate.

If you are developing or contributing to the emergency plan for your organisation or service, consider the following provisions, which are responsive to the needs of infants, children and families.

Select a heading to learn more about each aspect of disaster emergency planning.

  • Evacuation involves moving people threatened by a hazard to a safer location prior to, or during, a disaster, to reduce loss of life and other disaster impacts on a community. To be as safe and effective as possible, evacuations must be appropriately planned before a disaster occurs. Evacuation centres are typically established under the direction and processes of designated lead agencies in each state/territory.


    Infants, children and families require special attention in evacuation planning due to their unique needs and potential vulnerabilities. For example, infants’ smaller size and immature immune systems mean they are more susceptible to dehydration and illness. Infants and young children are reliant on adults during an evacuation (Gribble et al., 2019; Callaghan et al., 2007).


    Many services, such as schools and early childhood education and care providers, are required to have a policy and procedure for emergency evacuations in place.


    Evacuation plans must include provisions that support the following:

    • The early evacuation of infants, children and their caregivers
      This includes ensuring families are informed about evacuation plans in advance of a disaster and are prepared to evacuate early, knowing the risks and any special considerations for their family, or immediately if advised by emergency services.
    • The specific needs of children during an evacuation
      Infants and toddlers in particular are reliant on their caregivers – for mobility, physical care, nutrition and emotional co-regulation and support. Their ability to communicate their needs is also limited.
    • The needs of infants, children and families after relocation
      This involves ensuring evacuation and relief centres are adequately resourced to meet the specific needs of infants, children and families (more on this in the following section).


    World Health Assembly Resolutions and the Australian National Breastfeeding Strategy (COAG Health Council, 2019) require that plans for feeding infants and young children in emergencies (known as IYCF-E) be implemented by Australian governments. However, research has shown planning for infants during emergencies is generally inadequate (Gribble et al., 2019).

  • It is critical that plans for evacuation and relief centres include provisions to meet the needs of infants, children and families – before, during and/or after a disaster. The experience of being in a centre that is not safe or equipped to meet their practical and psychosocial needs may have adverse consequences on infants’ and children’s mental health and wellbeing.


    Disaster planning for evacuation and relief centres should be informed by practitioners with knowledge of child development and health, and by families with lived experience of disasters. Plans must include recommendations for adequate provision of:

    • age-appropriate food and feeding equipment for children of all ages, including:
      • support for breastfeeding parents
      • clean water and supplies for bottle-fed infants
      • age-appropriate foods for infants, toddlers and young children
    • a separate, safe and well-equipped area for families with infants and toddlers
    • clothing, including appropriately sized nappies and baby change supplies
    • equipment and bedding for sleeping
    • age-appropriate toys and activities
    • access to medications and equipment to meet health needs
    • psychological support, including psychological first aid
    • child-friendly spaces in which children can play and socialise (which may also provide respite for parents and a space to deliver early recovery activities).


    It is important to aim for a calm atmosphere in areas of an evacuation centre designated for families. Children, especially infants, are highly sensitive to their surroundings; a calm and non-threatening environment helps reduce both their and their parents’ stress and anxiety.


    Our practice paper, Supporting infants, children and families in an evacuation provides more detailed guidance about infant- and child-centred practices in evacuations and relief centres.

  • Children can become separated from their families before, during or after a disaster. In addition to the risks to their safety and physical wellbeing, separation from a parent or family members can cause a child significant distress and potential mental health difficulties in the short and long term. Parents and children have described separation as one of the most stressful aspects of a disaster.


    Effective emergency planning minimises the risk of children being separated from their families by aiming to keep family members together (when disasters can be predicted) and ensuring children and other family members know what to do if they do become separated. However, sometimes separation cannot be prevented. As a disaster unfolds, families may be physically unable to reunite, or even communicate with one another.


    Children who are separated from their parents may find it difficult to use strategies to feel safe and calm without the support of their parents and family. Therefore, disaster plans must consider how to support unaccompanied children, including those who are found and those who present at an evacuation centre, hospital or other service.


    In all cases and locations, the priorities are to:

    • identify the child and obtain the name and contact details of their parent or carer (if possible)
    • protect them and meet their urgent needs; and
    • reunite them with their family or legal guardians as quickly as possible. This is critical to reducing their risks of physical and mental harm.


    Reunification plans and procedures should include actions that can be taken to prevent families from being separated in the first place, as well as plans to respond to children who become separated from their families or who are reported missing.


    Planning for unaccompanied children and reunification is an important aspect of preparedness for all entities in a community, but especially those that have children in their care or on site. This may include schools, early learning services, hospitals and health services, community centres, and social services, including child safety services. It is also crucial for services responsible for evacuation and relief centres.

  • Many people exposed to a disaster will be distressed and in need of immediate psychosocial support. Offering support as soon as it is safe to do so is crucial to reduce distress, promote resilience and support the long-term mental health of individuals – including infants and children – who have experienced a disaster.


    Therefore, it is critical to document strategies for delivering psychosocial support in emergency plans, including:

    • the type/s of psychosocial support that will be provided
    • who will provide it
    • which of those providers have the knowledge and skills to provide support for infants, children, pregnant people and parents
    • where and when different support services will be offered.


    Emergency responders and other practitioners who may be on the ‘frontline’ of a disaster should be prepared to support children and their families. This includes receiving appropriate training in delivery of psychosocial care tailored to the unique needs of infants, children, people who are pregnant and parents.


    Psychological first aid (PFA) is an evidence-informed approach that is recommended for supporting infants, children and families during and after a disaster. For infants and very young children, PFA involves supporting their primary caregivers, by providing PFA to parents and/or supporting them to use the principles themselves.


    It is important to understand and learn the skills for applying PFA with infants, children and parents before a disaster strikes. Providing PFA in the immediate and short-term after a disaster limits the potentially damaging effects of disaster exposure and lessens the risk of ongoing mental health difficulties. It can be considered the first step in the recovery process.


    Learn more about using psychological first aid with infants and children in our practice papers, How psychological first aid can support infants, children and families who experience a disaster (part one) and Psychological first aid with infants and children: Practice guidance (part two).

  • Planning for recovery is integral to disaster preparedness and should occur concurrently with planning disaster responses. Governments and some organisations have legal responsibilities for planning and leading recovery arrangements. However, all organisations and community groups that may have a role in disaster recovery should be involved in planning.


    Recovery planning involves identifying the potential challenges and resources that may affect the recovery of different individuals or groups in a community. It is also about preparing individuals, entities and communities for the practical and psychosocial consequences of a disaster, in both the short and long term.


    Planning for recovery might mean considering your practices and what you will need to support the children and/or families you work with in a post-disaster context. For example, what resources or training will prepare you for supporting children and families? If you’re an educator, how do you know when the school or early learning service is safe for children to return, and what strategies can you prepare for supporting and re-engaging children in learning? If you are a child health practitioner, how or where will you practice if your workplace is not accessible or there is no electricity?


    Recovery planning should involve children and families as active participants, to ensure their voices, perspectives and preferences are heard and respected. Practitioners must also be engaged to identify and address their needs for additional training, support and supervision. This is critical to ensuring practitioners will be equipped to cope with the stress of a disaster and to provide effective and appropriate support to children and families.


    To support your planning for recovery, you can learn more about practices for supporting infants, children and families after a disaster in our practice paper, Supporting infants, children and families after disasters.

Supporting families to prepare for disasters

Parents can feel unsure about how to prepare for different types of emergencies, including disasters. It can be daunting to think about the possibility of a disaster occurring, and about their children’s and their own needs during an emergency.

Providing parents with education and support on how to prepare for a disaster can help them make informed decisions and take action to support the needs of each family member, as well as the family as a whole. Support should include guidance on including their children in preparedness activities in a safe way that is responsive to their fears and sensitive to their age and development.

Supporting families in undertaking preparedness can help them understand what is in their control in the face of uncertainty and build their ‘readiness’ in the event of a disaster.

The following sections outline approaches to supporting families with household emergency planning and psychological preparedness.

Supporting families with household emergency planning

It is important parents and families are provided with advice and support on household emergency planning – particularly guidance on strategies to be inclusive of children’s needs, as well as their perspectives and ideas. Advice related to household emergency planning should also be inclusive of pregnant people and their families, to protect themselves and their unborn child and have a plan in case the baby is born during a disaster.

Creating a household emergency plan is about focusing on the aspects of being prepared that are within the control of families. It’s not possible for families to plan for every scenario or risk, but it is possible to prepare for known hazards or even the hazards that are most likely to occur.

Household emergency planning is about parents taking action to consider their unique skills, needs and vulnerabilities, along with those of:

  • their children, including infants as well as unborn children
  • their partner/s; and
  • the family as a whole.

It is also about parents and caregivers providing developmentally and age-appropriate opportunities for their children to participate in household emergency planning, and contribute their ideas, perspectives and reflections. When children are aware of the potential for a hazard to impact on their household or community, they feel safer if they know there are plans in place and what they might have to do (Le Dé et al., 2020).

Parents can engage their children in discussions and decisions and get their help in creating a family plan that everyone can understand. It is important that children feel they can play an active role in emergency planning and identify what their role may be in the event of a disaster. For instance, families may plan for children to have a role in taking care of their pets, packing a special item, or getting into the car as quickly as possible when their parents tell them to. In these discussions, it’s important for children to have the chance to recognise their role, but also understand that disaster preparedness is a responsibility shared with their parents and other important adults, including extended family, first responders and educators.

Household emergency planning ideally involves multiple discussions over time, rather than a single session. It is valuable for families to review and update their household emergency plan regularly to ensure its relevance and effectiveness – especially as children grow.

The following are some key elements of household emergency planning to share or use with families:

  • Identify potential hazards in the area and assess how they may impact the whole family, especially children, as well as the parental role.
  • Identify the actions that will support the whole family, including infants and children, in the event of a disaster, and document these actions in a way all children in the family can understand.
  • Develop a family emergency or survival kit of important items that individual members and the family as a whole will need in the event of a disaster.
  • Think about communication strategies and channels that might be used in a disaster.
  • Create a reunification plan outlining ways to reconnect if family members are separated during a disaster.
  • Plan and practice evacuations, with an emphasis on leaving early and considering safety.
  • Consider any medical conditions, disabilities or special needs of family members, including infants and children, parents and other family members who children may worry about.
  • Develop the family’s psychological preparedness. Discuss disasters with children in a reassuring manner, and identify new and existing coping strategies that will foster resilience and emotional wellbeing in anticipation of, during and after a disaster.

As part of household emergency planning, it’s valuable for families to connect with community resources and support networks that can assist with disaster preparedness and response efforts. This could include providing local workshops or training sessions on disaster preparedness for families with children. Invite families to collaborate with schools, childcare providers and community organisations to share resources, information and support.  It can also be useful to offer opportunities for families to learn about your organisational plan for emergencies and how it can support their children and family in the event of an emergency.

Developing a household emergency plan is an important part of disaster preparedness that can increase the capacity and confidence of family members, especially children, in the event of a disaster. However, conversations about disasters can also increase fear or anxiety in children. To help avoid this, you may need to provide parents with resources or guidance about appropriate information, depending on each child’s age and temperament, and the importance of allowing time for children to share what they know and ask questions. Parents may also benefit from guidance around strategies to engage children in these conversations over time.

The following resources offer more information and guidance for parents on preparing for a flood or bushfire:

Psychological preparedness with children and families

Australia’s experience of frequent and severe disasters means there is a strong focus in disaster preparedness on ways to protect lives, homes and property. But it is also essential to guide and support people to prepare psychologically.

Psychological preparedness can help people feel more confident and in control, plan more effectively, cope better during a disaster, and reduce the psychological distress and mental health difficulties that may result from disaster exposure (Randrianarisoa et al., 2021). Psychological preparedness is a strategy that practitioners need to consider for themselves, but it is also an important part of preparedness for children and families.

It is important to be aware of the purpose of psychological preparedness, as well as any risks when implementing these strategies with parents and their children. Psychological strategies in preparation for a disaster need to be guided sensitively by a practitioner with experience in working with children and families and the skills to support them if they become distressed or overwhelmed.


Psychological preparedness with children

Psychological preparedness strategies will differ depending on the age, development, temperament and other characteristics and contexts of each individual child.

In supporting the psychological preparedness of infants, the focus should be on the role of parents and other adult carers in helping them feel safe and supported. Preparedness with infants in mind means planning ahead to meet their basic needs for food, water and temperature control, but also ensuring parents and adult carers have strategies to co-regulate and soothe their infants in stressful situations.

Infants are very tuned in to their parents’ emotions and reactions. During a disaster, they may feel scared, confused or overwhelmed. When supporting parents with preparedness strategies for their children, one of the best ways to help them is to provide information on the importance of contact and containment, which means holding an infant close (contact) and creating a sense of physical and emotional safety (containment). This helps infants feel safe and secure.

Preparedness with infants and their families also involves supporting the quality of parent-child relationships and interactions, which will support resilience in the event of a disaster. This can include psychoeducation about responsive parenting and what to expect in terms of reactions to disasters. It can also include information about supporting infant feeding and the use of baby carriers.

As parents begin planning for the emotional and practical needs of their children, they may also feel more prepared for a disaster. This can reduce their own worry and stress, which has a direct impact on how their infants feel. This process of co-regulation is essential in supporting an infant’s wellbeing, during and after a disaster.

Psychological preparedness with preschoolers and primary school-aged children involves building their knowledge, highlighting and drawing on their existing coping skills, and teaching them additional strategies they can use if exposed to a disaster. Speaking with children about what they will do, what parents and other adults (like you) will do, and why is a great way to enhance their capacity to cope with the stress of experiencing a disaster. Equipping children with information about the disaster and practical skills to cope supports them to navigate challenges calmly, safely and with informed confidence.

Psychoeducation and skill-building activities for children may include:

  • Understanding the disaster: Providing developmentally and age-appropriate information about the expected nature and potential consequences of a disaster. In doing so, be aware of and sensitive to children’s fears.
  • Normalising reactions: Educating children about common emotional, behavioural and physical responses to disasters, so they can understand their reactions if a disaster occurs. This can reduce the risk of children feeling isolated or stigmatised.
  • Safety planning: Teaching safety measures and emergency procedures, often through play, role-playing and visual aids, to enhance infants’ and children’s preparedness.
  • Emotional regulation techniques: Recognising and supporting the positive coping strategies children are already using, and discussing how these could be used in the event of a disaster. Introducing grounding and movement-based activities children can use to manage overwhelming emotions in response to stress.
  • Problem-solving skills: Guiding children through practical solutions to challenges they might face post-disaster, fostering empowerment and self-efficacy.
  • Identifying support networks: Facilitating discussions with children about who’s in their support network and the importance of seeking support from trusted adults and community resources.
  • Stress reduction activities: Introducing activities such as play, art or journaling that help children express their thoughts and feelings after a stressful event.
  • Positive thinking strategies: Teaching children to reframe negative thoughts and to identify their own strengths, which will foster hope and resilience in the event of a disaster.

Psychological preparedness with parents

If you work with adults who are parents, you can encourage and support their psychological preparedness and their capacity to support the wellbeing of their children in the event of a disaster. Emphasise the importance of feeling equipped to manage their own reactions and distress as much as possible, as well as knowing how they can support and mitigate their children’s feelings.

If parents know what to expect and do during and after a disaster, it can reduce their anxiety and increase their confidence and decision-making ability. This is about parents developing an understanding of what might be stressful for them, as well as their infants and children, in the event of a disaster. It also requires parents to be aware of typical emotional and behavioural reactions to a potentially traumatic event for children of different ages, as well as adults. You can help parents to identify strategies they and their children already use to cope with emotional reactions and behaviours and build on those.

Parents may seek support to help their children cope with the psychological impact of disasters and facilitate their recovery. Providing parents with advice, information and guidance on how to psychologically prepare their children for a disaster is crucial for promoting resilience and wellbeing.

The AIM (Anticipate, Identify, Manage) model is commonly used in disaster preparedness to help people think about and prepare for potential reactions during a highly stressful situation (Morrissey & Reser, 2003). You might use this approach with parents to help them:

  • anticipate the challenges their family may face – to think about what family members (infants, children and adults) might need, how they might feel and what they might be thinking if a disaster is imminent or occurring
  • identify how they and their children might react; and
  • develop plans and practical strategies to manage those feelings, thoughts and behaviours.

The AIM model is a flexible and supportive approach that can be adapted for use with different parents and families. The Australian Psychological Society provides guidance for parents and caregivers on how AIM can be used with children to prepare for the threat of a bushfire, along with a general tip sheet on psychological preparedness using AIM. However, it is important to be mindful of your own skills and scope, and make sure you have the appropriate training and supervision to use the AIM model in a safe and effective way.

Similarly, parents need to be supported to think about the strategies they might use to help infants and children be psychologically prepared to manage their feelings, thoughts and behaviour, in advance of a disaster. This may include providing information and resources that offer guidance on how to explain potential risks and preparedness actions in a manner that is reassuring and understandable for children of different ages and developmental stages.

Some suggestions you might offer parents:

  • Explain to children why you are preparing for a disaster in an honest, age-appropriate way.
  • Talk to children about preparations that are happening around the home. For example: ‘Mum is cleaning the gutters to keep us safe from embers’, or ‘Let’s rake up all these leaves to help keep our trees safe.’
  • When tidying up a child’s bedroom together, ask the child, ‘Which is your favourite toy right now – the one you’d most want to take with you if there was an emergency? Let’s write that on the fridge so we remember!’
  • Tell them it’s natural to feel frightened. Help them identify how it feels in their body when they’re scared so they will recognise and understand those feelings. Explain that even when we are scared, it’s possible to be brave and to do hard things.
  • Foster open communication and create a supportive family environment where children feel comfortable expressing their emotions and asking questions. Talk about emotions, fears and coping strategies, validate children’s feelings, and offer reassurance and comfort as needed.
  • Notice and affirm children’s strengths. For example, if your child is patting the dog, you might say, ‘You’re so good at making Ziggy feel loved. If there was an emergency, do you think one of your roles could be to look after him?’
  • Consider how ‘everyday’ strategies your family is already using to support your children’s emotional regulation could be adapted to suit a disaster context. Many families are familiar with resources schools or practitioners use, such as the Zones of Regulation or muscle relaxation activities.
  • Think of strategies you used to prepare your child for starting child care or school – like visiting the centre/school, planning what they will take, talking about what to expect and who will be there to help them. Consider how you could adapt those strategies with a focus on disaster preparedness.
  • For infants, plan to take a comfort toy, blanket and/or dummy that helps soothe them. When planning with older children, talk about the book or toy they will want to take if you have to
  • Do your best to model healthy coping behaviours and resilience in the face of adversity. By demonstrating self-care practices, problem-solving skills, and positive coping strategies, you can instill confidence and resilience in your children.
  • Explain to children that there are lots of helpful adults whose job it is to keep them safe in the event of a disaster. Reassure them that you and other caring adults, such as first responders, educators and health workers, can be trusted to look after them if a disaster happens.

With accurate information and communication strategies, parents can address their children’s concerns and fears in a supportive and constructive manner. Building capability in partnership with parents by expanding their knowledge, skills and resources to support their children’s psychological preparedness and recovery also promotes family resilience in preparation for and response to disasters.

It is helpful for parents to be aware that in a disaster they may say things or behave in ways that are different, due to the stress and threat they’re under – especially if they perceive the danger as life-threatening. It is also imperative that parents are aware that they can take action after the disaster to repair any impact this has on their relationship with their child, and reflect together on how they can prepare for future events.

Parents may benefit from psychoeducational materials and training programs that enhance their understanding of children’s and adults’ emotional responses to disasters and provide practical strategies for supporting their mental health and wellbeing. These resources can offer insights into common reactions children may exhibit during and after a disaster, such as fear, anxiety or behavioral changes, and offer guidance on how to respond sensitively and effectively. Some resources you can provide to parents to help them in preparing psychologically as well as practically for a disaster are linked at the end of this paper.

Ideally, different organisations and agencies in a community – such as schools, early learning services, child and youth mental health services and child mental health practitioners, local councils and emergency services – share common resources, or at least promote common messages, for children and families. This creates a sense of collaboration in the community that is reassuring, and limits confusion for both parents and children.

In addressing children’s psychological preparedness for disasters, it is vital to adopt a trauma-informed approach that acknowledges the diverse responses of both infants and children and their parents. Some parents may find it challenging to contemplate the possibility of a disaster impacting their family, leading them to avoid discussions or activities related to disaster preparedness. If you are aware of and can recognise signs of avoidance or discomfort, you can create a supportive environment that validates parents’ concerns while encouraging open dialogue. Showing empathy and building collaboration will enable you to help parents navigate their fears and gradually engage in disaster preparedness efforts in a safe and respectful manner.


Preparedness is a vital process in not only mitigating the impact of disasters, but also facilitating post-disaster recovery for children, parents, families and communities.

This practice paper provides an overview of child-centred, family-focused approaches to disaster preparedness. It outlines practical strategies to enhance disaster planning within services, agencies and organisations, emphasising inclusivity and responsiveness to the unique needs of infants, children and families.

The practical insights and strategies in this paper will help practitioners who are advising on emergency plans, advocating for inclusive processes, and/or supporting families in their preparedness efforts, to protect the safety and wellbeing of infants, children and families who experience disasters.


This practice guidance draws on research, practice insights and the lived experience of our child and family partners. We would like to thank the professionals and families who played an integral role in shaping this resource.


Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss & Grief Network (ACATLGN). (2024). In children’s own words [podcast episode]. Disaster Talks.

Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience (AIDR). (2018). Australian Disaster Resilience Community Recovery Handbook. Commonwealth of Australia.

Callaghan, W. M., Rasmussen, S. A., Jamieson, D. J., Ventura, S. J., Farr, S. L., Sutton, P. D., Mathews, T. J., Hamilton, B. E., Shealy, K. R., Brantley, D., & Posner, S. F. (2007). Health concerns of women and infants in times of natural disasters: lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 11(4), 307–311. DOI: 10.1007/s10995-007-0177-4

COAG Health Council. (2019). Australian National Breastfeeding Strategy: 2019 and beyond. Australian Government Department of Health.

Deloitte Access Economics. (2024). The impact of disasters on children and young people. Deloitte Australia.

Gribble, K., Peterson, M., & Brown, D. (2019). Emergency preparedness for infant and young child feeding in emergencies (IYCF-E): An Australian audit of emergency plans and guidance. BMC Public Health, 19(1), 1278. DOI: 10.1186/s12889-019-7528-0

Ireland, C. A., & Huxley, S. (2018). Psychological trauma in professionals working with traumatized children. The Journal of Forensic Practice, 20(3), 141-151. DOI: 10.1108/JFP-10-2017-0045

Lai, B. S., & La Greca, A. (2020). Understanding the impacts of natural disasters on children. Society for Research in Child Development.

Le Dé, L., Gaillard, J. C., Gampell, A., Loodin, N., & Cadag, J. (2020). Participatory mapping 2.0: New ways for children’s participation in disaster risk reduction. Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 35, 2.

Morrisey, S. & Reser, J. (2003). Evaluating the effectiveness of psychological preparedness advice in community cyclone preparedness materials. Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 18, 2, 46–61.

Randrianarisoa, A., Richardson, J., Brady, K., & Leguy, L. (2021). Understanding preparedness and recovery: A survey of people’s preparedness and recovery experience for emergencies. Australian Red Cross.

Richardson, J., Kelly, L., & Mackay, A. (2023). Australian Red Cross psychosocial approach to disaster preparedness. Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 38(3), 31–36. DOI: 10.47389.38.3.31

Schonfeld, D. J., Demaria, T., & Disaster Preparedness Advisory Council and Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. (2015). Providing psychosocial support to children and families in the aftermath of disasters and crises. Pediatrics, 136(4), e1120-e1130.

United Nations General Assembly. (1989). United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. UN.

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