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.
The impacts of a drought can be subtle and gradual. Droughts themselves often last for years or re-occur just when communities are getting back on their feet. Over time, the prolonged stress and uncertainty that a drought brings can lead to mental health difficulties and trauma.
This is especially heartbreaking because for many families, a farm is a lot more than just a home or a job. It’s a tradition, sometimes stretching back generations. It’s a lifestyle and a legacy to pass on to your child or children. Your patch of the planet might define who you are.
Or you might not actually own a farm, but live within a tight-knit rural community where everyone is feeling the financial and emotional impacts of the drought. That’s why drought is a whole-family and whole-community issue.
We know people in regional and rural communities are a hardy, down-to-earth bunch. But that’s what makes drought particularly tricky, too. Over a prolonged period, it will wear down even the most resilient families, couples and children and young people. If your family is battling with the ongoing pressure of life in a drought, it’s normal to be worried about the mental health impacts on your child. If you personally feel worn out and at your wits end, that’s normal too.
Some good news? While we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of traumatic experiences on mental health, most children will recover with time, care and reassurance. There are lots of practical things you can do as a parent to help support your child through this experience, too.
Children respond in different ways to trauma and adversity, depending on factors like their age, and where they’re at in their development, as well as their own coping skills and what they see and personally experience. Responses can change over time, too, so in this resource we’ll also explore what to look out for in the months and even years ahead.
It’s important to remember that caring parents and a stable routine are the two biggest factors in supporting your child through this experience. And you’re the expert – no‑one knows your child better than you do. The things that you intuitively feel will often be the most important, like knowing when your child needs an extra cuddle and a chat about how they’re feeling, knowing what might lift their spirits, or when the family needs some extra quality time together.
In saying all this, it’s understandable if you’re feeling so overwhelmed right now that you’re having trouble determining how much your child has been affected by the drought. The same goes for knowing exactly what to do about it. If you’re concerned about your child’s behaviour and things don’t settle down in a week or two, seek advice and support from your general practitioner (GP) or health professional.
‘Think of yourself as a bucket of water, where your water is your positive energy. If you’re always pouring out, watering others and taking care of them, you’re going to run out of energy and positivity, and then there’ll be none left for you or anyone else, including the kids.’
– Dr Andrea Baldwin, clinical psychologist
As a parent, you have the power to influence how your child copes through this drought.
We all know that when the to-do list gets long, parents put themselves ever further down the list. But it’s important to remember that looking after your own physical and mental health right now is not indulgent. It’s absolutely essential to your child’s wellbeing.
In a drought, the mental health impacts tend to slowly stack up, as each issue builds on top of the last. For some, the focus is on ‘just getting through’, and it is only when the drought breaks that issues emerge. The length and severity of the drought will affect how people respond, but the day-to-day hardship and build up of stress can be equally hard to manage.
Everyone experiences stress sometimes, but the ongoing nature of drought can lead to burnout (where you feel exhausted, frustrated or resentful, and/or feel like change is out of your control) and compassion fatigue (where you can’t help or support others because you are tired, have too much to do, and/or are struggling yourself). Persistent high levels of stress can also cause physical health problems, like headaches, difficulty sleeping or eating, and/or aches and pains, which can make existing health issues worse.
If your physical or mental health problems persist, seek support from your GP, health professional or one of the helplines listed at the end of this resource. Practising strategies, habits or routines that support your wellbeing can also help. Remember this as the weeks and months pass, too. You’re not failing anyone by putting up your hand sometimes and asking for help.
For more information, check out our fact sheet and podcast on looking after yourself during a drought.
Presenting a positive, supportive and caring environment for your child (even if you don’t necessarily feel positive on the inside right now) provides an important foundation for your child’s mental health and wellbeing. You can still acknowledge the challenges caused by the drought and the impact it is having on your family and community, while remaining positive and hopeful about the future. For example, you might say something like, ‘It seems like we’re feeling a bit sad about this drought today, but we will get through it together.’
You might think it’s better to protect your child from the worry and stress of ongoing hardship. You might personally find it hard to talk about what is happening, too. But it’s important to remember that your child will already know that something’s not right. Without the facts, they may not understand what the problem is and may feel alone in their feelings and worries. For example, if you’re upset, they might think it’s because they’ve been naughty or done something wrong, or that you and your partner are fighting. By having age-appropriate conversations with your child, you’ll be able to help them to manage their feelings and worries.
Research has shown that some of the common things causing children to worry during drought include their parents working more, worrying more, being angrier, a scarcity of resources, and more talk about finances.1 But there are lots of steps you can take to buffer your child from these adult adversities.
Make time to sit down with your child to listen to them as they talk about their feelings and experiences and to answer any questions they might have. Bearing in mind what’s appropriate for their age and abilities, answer as truthfully as possible (even if that answer is, ‘I don’t actually have the answer to that right now, but as soon as I know, I’ll let you know too.’) In the vast majority of cases, you are the answer, because you are the provider of care and stability.
Drought can help some communities grow closer as they lean on each other. At the other end of the spectrum, or in the event of a prolonged or recurring drought, the stress can lead individuals and families to disconnect from their community. There’s nothing wrong with stepping back for a bit to keep your own emotional tank full and focus on your own family unit. But staying connected with others over the long term is really important for the whole family’s wellbeing and recovery.
Having trusted adults outside of the family (for example, friends’ parents, neighbours, teachers, sporting coaches) who can look out for your child can significantly reduce their risk of mental health difficulties, and also ease some of the pressure on you as their caregiver. It’s particularly important for teenagers to have more than one trusting adult they can turn to for help, as they grow more independent from their parents and family. As an adult, it can be helpful to talk with others who are going through similar experiences to you. It can also be a great way to learn the strategies other families are using to cope with the drought. Casual get-togethers and community events can also be an opportunity to forget about day-to-day life for a bit.
Just as all children have their own personalities, there’s no one-size-fits-all response to the ongoing hardship of a drought. If you’re trying to work out how much your child might be affected (again, bearing in mind we all respond differently), some things to consider include:
- any previous experiences of adversity, loss or trauma, including exposure to drought
- any pre-existing mental health difficulties, such as anxiety or depression
- whether your child has a disability or is neurodiverse
- how much media about the drought your child has been exposed to
- how much support your child receives from friends, family and their school/early learning service
- how you as their parent are coping with the situation, and also how you’re coping as a family unit
- whether the community is rallying together and being offered support.
It’s important to remember that with time, nurturing, patience and a stable routine, most children and young people will recover well following a drought. But some children may find it difficult to tell their parents that they’re struggling emotionally or physically. They may not have the words or even the awareness to recognise that they need support. That’s why it’s important to remain curious. This involves looking out for any changes in your child’s emotions and behaviour, as well as talking with them about what they’re feeling and experiencing. Ask direct, opened-ended questions – for example, instead of asking ‘Are you OK?’ (which requires a ‘yes’/‘no’ response), try something specific like, ‘Lots of people I chat to are feeling sad or angry at the moment, thinking about the drought. I’m feeling a bit like that myself. How about you? Tell me how you’re feeling.’
In times of stress, children respond in different ways. They can withdraw, stop paying attention, cry or throw tantrums, or find it hard to learn at school. They may show different behaviours, like seeming anxious, getting angry at seemingly small things, or being more tense than usual. They might show a sudden interest in more adult topics or responsibilities, or become focused on scoring highly in their studies, sports or hobbies. They may also start showing behaviours typical of a much younger or older child. For example, a seven-year-old may suddenly become afraid of the dark, or an 11-year-old may start rebelling against authority or skipping school.
Some children may find it difficult to tell their parents that they’re struggling emotionally or physically. They may not have the words or even the awareness to recognise that they need support. And in a period of prolonged tension and adversity such as a drought, it’s not always easy to predict what might spark their mental health difficulties. That’s why it’s important for you to remain curious as the drought continues. Here are some suggestions:
- Encourage your child to express their thoughts and feelings, and to ask questions. For example, ‘It’s normal to be feeling lots of different things at a time like this. What are you noticing or feeling?’ Accept their feelings and reactions, because we all respond differently to stress and uncertainty. Avoid telling them to ‘be good’, to ‘stop being silly’, to ‘be brave’ or that they’re ‘being selfish’. Instead, be curious about what emotion your child is feeling and help them to describe what it feels like in their body. You could say something like, ‘Sometimes when I feel worried, I get a funny feeling in my tummy and my heart feels like it’s racing in my chest. What have you been noticing in your body lately?’
- Set boundaries. It is helpful for children to have boundaries maintained gently but firmly, especially in time of stress. Sometimes children will display different behaviours when they’re feeling unsure, unseen or lonely, and need care and attention. It’s important to keep this in mind and look beyond your child’s behaviour to try and understand the feelings behind it. For example, you might tell your child that it’s fine to be angry about how the drought has affected their life, but it’s not okay to trash their room. Although keeping boundaries (and your cool) may be difficult when you’re also under stress, maintaining these boundaries will assist in providing a sense of safety and stability for your child.
- Teach your child positive ways of coping. Children look to their parents for guidance and support. Share what helps you to deal with feelings of sadness, anxiety or anger. For example, you might say that you like to listen to upbeat music when you’re feeling particularly sad. Or maybe you like to go for a run or a walk, or talk to Grandma/Grandpa. By sharing these hints, it will show your child that it’s normal to feel sad sometimes, but there are also practical ways to help ourselves feel better.
- Keep them talking. Be patient and find regular times to maintain an open conversation with your child. Let them know that it’s OK if they don’t feel like talking right now, but that you’ll be there for them when they’re ready. And if they pick a busy moment to talk, try to stop and listen – it may be the only time they feel comfortable.
- Check in with your child’s school or Early Learning Service (ELS). Sometimes, children will feel more comfortable expressing how they feel to their educators or friends, or they will display different behaviours at school or ELS instead of at home. Your child’s educator can help monitor their wellbeing and behaviours over time and let you know about any changes they’ve noticed.
Remember, most children with recover with time, care and reassurance, but some will find the impacts of drought more difficult to deal with. If your child seems to be really struggling, or you’re worried about a particular behaviour, check with your GP and/or local health service.
We’re sure it won’t come as any surprise to learn that the ongoing stress of drought can create uncertainty and concern. It’s the same for your child. They understand their world through their relationships with their family, friends and community – so how the adults around them cope as the drought goes on will have a big impact on how they cope, too.
The good news is that children tend to cope with hardship quite well, as long as there are supportive adults around to help them when they need it. But children also sometimes avoid telling their parents if they’re struggling emotionally or physically, so as not to add to their parents’ burden. They may hide their own challenges in a bid to protect their parents and siblings. Or they may not have the words (or even the awareness) to tell you that they need support.
At times when you’re really struggling, helping your child to stay connected to the other supportive adults in their life can be key to supporting their mental health and wellbeing. This may include extended family, friends, neighbours, teachers, or sports coaches.
The following resources offer more advice and practical strategies for supporting the mental health and wellbeing of your child during a drought.
As the years roll by, it can become harder to link any mental health difficulties back to the drought. But sometimes, children who appeared to cope well initially will have problems down the track. It’s also not uncommon for issues to resurface years later, perhaps triggered by some reminder of the drought, or some other unrelated traumatic experience or challenging life event.
The key is to stay curious. Try to picture things through your child’s eyes as time goes on. As best you can, create a positive, supportive and caring environment for your child to feel comfortable to connect and talk with you. Keep asking open-ended questions and watching for changes in your child’s behaviour. Also remember that drought can have long-term emotional and personal effects on you as an adult, too. Your child may pick up on these feelings, without understanding what has caused them. Continue to make time to talk with your child about how you’re both feeling.
As we’ve discussed, the majority of children who experience drought will recover with time, reassurance, patience and your support. However, with all the care and support in the world, some children will need professional help to cope with the impacts of a drought.
The good news is there’s a lot of research going into this area of mental health, with many evidence-based techniques available to help children get back on track. In the first instance, the best person to speak with is your GP. They can discuss the different options with you and connect you with specialist help if needed. When making appointments ask your GP about the availability of telehealth which has increased accessibility in rural areas during recent times.
If you’re feeling tired, overwhelmed and worried about your child, we want you to know your feelings are completely normal. By simply being a safe, consistent and caring figure in your child’s life, you will be helping them to manage the impacts of a drought. In fact, lots of families say that drought makes them closer and stronger than ever, because they’re required to pull together and focus on what’s important to them.
Just as children need reassurance that they’re safe, we want to remind you that you’re going through a lot, and that these tough times are temporary. This drought will eventually end. Remember that your own wellbeing is vital, so be kind to yourself, and seek support if you or your child need it.
If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 000.
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.
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.
1. Dean, J. & Stain, H. J. (2007). The impact of drought on the emotional well-being of children and adolescents in rural and remote New South Wales. National Rural Health Association, 23(4), 356–364.
This resource contains 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.