How to support your child in the weeks after a flood

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource offers practical strategies to help parents support their children’s mental health and wellbeing during and in the weeks after a flood. 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.

Immediately after a flood, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed and scared – both for yourself and your family. But children are significantly less likely to experience ongoing mental health difficulties if they receive support, comfort and reassurance from the adults around them at the earliest possible stage.

To help you to cope and stay focused while everything around you seems out of control, experts have come up with three simple strategies on how to help children’s wellbeing after a flood. Together, they’re known as psychological first aid and they relate to mental health in the same way general first aid relates to treating physical injuries.

Three simple things you can do straight away to support your child’s wellbeing

  1. Listen and look
    Listen to your child’s questions or concerns, while also looking out for and supporting their emotions and behaviours.
  2. Protect
    Provide as safe an environment as you can, both physically and emotionally.
  3. Connect
    Support your child to feel connected to familiar people, places or objects as much as you can.

You’re probably doing everything you can to support your child’s mental health right now. As a result, you may find that you’re already doing some of these three things for your child without even realising it.

What to expect: Common reactions to a frightening or overwhelming experience

Immediately after the flood, your child might appear ‘frozen’ physically and/or emotionally, because their minds are working hard to process what’s going on. They might obsess about small details, and they might become deeply afraid and highly anxious.

Intense physical reactions may also occur, including:

  • nausea
  • heart palpitations
  • loss of bowel and bladder control
  • out-of-control crying or screaming.

Your child may have an overwhelming need to feel protected, safe and comforted by the most important and familiar people in their lives, such as their parents, extended family, friends and teachers.

If you are working or volunteering as a first responder

Many parents will take on a ‘first responder’ role during the immediate and short-term periods following a flood. Juggling work during an emergency makes it difficult to prioritise the needs of your own family. And while children are often proud of the role their loved ones play in the community, they can also worry about their parents’ safety.

In these situations, let your child know who will be taking care of them while you’re gone, where they will be staying, and when you will be back (as much as you know). Reassure them that you and the adults you’re working with are trained to respond to these kinds of situations. Take some time to answer any questions they may have (with age-appropriate information) and remind them of things they can do if they feel worried or overwhelmed while you’re gone.

What to do to support your child’s mental health during and in the weeks after a flood

Mental health specialists have developed the following list to help you calm and comfort your children during and in the weeks after a flood. This will allow them to gradually make sense of what’s happening and will limit the potential for ongoing trauma.

  • Avoid unnecessary separation. Your child will need to be with you and their siblings. If this isn’t possible – for example, if you need to start the clean-up operation while keeping them out of harm’s way – try to leave them in the care of someone they know and trust. And keep in touch as much as possible with texts, and voice and video calls.
  • Keep things calm around them.
  • Focus on the basics – for example, prioritise getting a roof over your heads, clean water, warmth, healthy food and rest.
  • Maintain familiar objects, routines and places (as much as you can).
  • Tell your child they’re safe (when this is the case), that you’re with them and that you’ll look after them. Explain what has happened and, if possible, what will happen next. 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 flood.
  • If you can, limit reminders of the flood by getting your child away from any potentially triggering sights, sounds and smells. Look for a quiet and settled place with other people around. While it may be tempting to explore the damage in your local area, try to avoid visiting places that have been affected by the flood as much as you can. Keeping this distance will help to support your child’s sense of safety.
  • Keep your child away from distressed people, other people’s conversations about their experience and media reports that might upset them. For expert recommendations on how to manage the impact of too much media exposure on your child’s mental health, check out our fact sheet, Traumatic events, the media and your child.
  • Look after yourself. Understand that even though you’re the parent, you might actually experience much of the same distress as your child. It is important that you prioritise your own wellbeing and give yourself permission to seek support.
  • Ask your child how they would like to be comforted. While you might feel a strong urge to offer them physical comfort – cuddling, stroking their hair, holding hands or sitting together – they might not want that right now. Calming, quiet conversations and listening to/singing favourite songs can help to reassure them that they’ll be OK. Older children and young people may also benefit from connecting with their friends, either in person (if possible) or virtually.
  • Accept your child’s responses, reactions and feelings. Don’t tell them to ‘be good’, to ‘stop being silly’ or that they need to ‘be brave’. They need to be able to share how they’re feeling when they’re ready to, and trust that you’ll understand and support them. Check in with your child over time – more frequent, shorter conversations are better than longer one-off chats. Allow them to talk (without forcing them) and say what they need to say. Take their worries seriously; don’t dismiss them. Let them cry. Keep reassuring them that their reactions are normal and will eventually pass.
  • Be on the lookout for changes in your child’s behaviour and emotions, in response to the stress of the floods. While it’s important to still set some boundaries around what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour, you may need to adjust your expectations a bit during this time.
  • Answer your child’s questions factually, clearly and concisely without providing unnecessary details (bearing in mind how old they are). It’s OK if you don’t have the information to answer their questions; just be honest and say so. If you have access to the internet, you might suggest you and your child look for the answer together. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, and don’t make stuff up that might be wrong. And remember, in most cases you are the answer, because you are the provider of love and stability.
  • Help your child to name and manage any physical reactions. For example, you might help them to put words to their feelings – ‘I feel tightness in my chest’, ‘I feel tingling in my belly’, ‘I feel my heart racing.’ Explore different calming activities together, such as journalling, drawing, cuddling an animal or moving their body – for example, walking or dancing. You could also show them how to take slow, deep ‘belly breaths’ (breathing deep to make their belly expand, then exhaling slowly) to calm themselves if they’re feeling tense, breathing rapidly or fidgeting.
  • Connect your child with something familiar as soon as possible. This might be a much-loved person, activity, pet, place or object. Familiarity and routine will help enormously with their recovery.
  • And don’t forget to be kind to yourself. You’ve been through a lot.

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 free 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 Call Back 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 compiled a list of national and state-based parent support helplines and hotlines.

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

Useful links for parents

This fact sheet contains information based in part on a resource originally authored by Ruth Wraith OAM, MCPP. It also includes content adapted from resources originally co-developed by Emerging Minds and the Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network/Australian National University as part of the Community Trauma Toolkit.

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