Supporting infants, children and families during and immediately after disasters

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.

Infants and children who experience a disaster are particularly susceptible to psychological harm. Providing targeted psychosocial support to families in the immediate aftermath (the hours and days after a disaster) is essential to supporting infants’ and children’s mental health.

This resource introduces evidence-informed strategies and practical advice to help practitioners support the mental health of infants, children and their parents during and immediately after a disaster. It may also aid in planning disaster response and relief strategies that are child-centred and family-focused.

During a disaster, families may need to evacuate to a safer place, in some cases to a designated evacuation/relief centre. This paper provides strategies that will support the physical and emotional wellbeing of infants, children and families in an evacuation centre. Our accompanying practice paper provides detailed advice about ensuring evacuation processes and centres are child-centred and family-focused.

Key messages

  • Responding to the unique needs of infants, children and families during and immediately after a disaster is crucial for their post-disaster wellbeing and long-term mental health.
  • The physical safety of children is paramount during the initial disaster response; so too is children’s emotional wellbeing.
  • Providing timely psychosocial care during and immediately after a disaster can help children maintain a sense of calm and reduce their stress and fear.
  • Supporting parents to enable responsive caregiving is essential to reduce the potential trauma impact on children and foster their recovery.
  • Prevention and early intervention strategies can improve children’s likelihood of recovering from potentially traumatic experiences, such as disasters, without long-term mental health impacts.
  • Practitioners can reduce the potential for ongoing mental health difficulties by providing guidance and reassurance and connecting families with resources and support services.


Who is this resource for?

This practice paper is for anyone who is currently supporting, or could support infants, children, parents/caregivers and/or families during or immediately after a disaster.  This includes practitioners and workers, leaders and volunteers in:

  • health services
  • social and community services
  • education
  • first response and emergency services
  • government (policymakers 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 old.

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.


Infants, children and young people are more vulnerable than adults to the psychological impacts of disasters (McDermott et al., 2014). Responding to the unique needs of children and their families when they are exposed to hazards and in the immediate aftermath of disasters is crucial to both their short and long-term wellbeing.

Physical safety is of course paramount in the initial disaster response. But protecting people’s psychological and emotional wellbeing is also critical. For children, particularly infants and young children, protecting their wellbeing involves providing psychosocial support to their parents and other caregivers, so they can notice, respond to and meet children’s physical and emotional needs. It also includes helping children feel that they can trust the people around them, and that they have some control over what happens to them. Focusing on children’s emotional wellbeing can reduce the impact of potentially traumatic events and foster resilience (Gibbs et al., 2015).

Every infant and child, even those within the same family, will have a different experience of a disaster. Their experience, and their individual response, depend on a range of personal, family, community and societal risk and protective factors, as well as the service responses and support available to them and their family during and after the disaster.

In most cases, infants and children experience mild and short-lived distress that lessens over time with support from parents and other adults. But without adequate protection and support, some children will experience significant distress and disruptions to their development (Royal Far West & UNICEF Australia, 2021).

Providing targeted psychosocial care as early as possible after a disaster is key to preventing long-term mental health impacts (Forbes et al., 2010). Practitioners can minimise the risks for both children and adults by providing practical and emotional support and reassurance, and connecting families with resources and services. Early intervention can also enhance a child’s coping skills and promote resilience to adversity (Alisic et al., 2014).

The first part of this practice paper explains the response and relief phases of disasters, who is involved and why a child-centred and family-focused approach is crucial at every level. The second part offers practical strategies and examples to guide both planning and practice with families at the frontline, during and immediately after a disaster.

What is disaster response and relief?

Disaster response and relief encompasses actions taken before, during and immediately after a disaster to save lives, reduce health impacts, ensure public safety and meet the basic needs of people affected (AIDR, 2015; UNDRR, 2017).

The primary goal of disaster response is the protection and preservation of human life. Examples of response actions include firefighters battling bushfires to protect people and properties, and emergency service personnel rescuing people trapped by floodwaters. Preventing or minimising physical and psychological suffering, including emotional distress, is also paramount. A further aim of disaster response is to prevent and limit property losses and destruction of the natural environment.

Disaster response also includes meeting the basic needs of people in affected communities, which is where response and relief begin to overlap.

‘The transition from response to relief and recovery is not always clear or linear, and some response actions may continue into the recovery phase. Therefore, planning for relief and recovery should start as soon as possible and be integrated with the response.’

- Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience (2020)

Disaster relief encompasses the actions taken when the emergency is being brought under control and the immediate threat to life has passed. Examples include the provision of support at evacuation centres and supplies being air-dropped to people cut off by flood waters. The primary goal is providing material aid such as shelter, clothing, water and food, as well as emergency medical and psychosocial care.

Effective disaster response and relief is built on a foundation of preparedness efforts undertaken before disasters occur. Ensuring children, families, communities and responders are equipped with comprehensive plans and strategies enhances safety and minimises stress for all involved during the response phase. When there are comprehensive disaster plans in place, parents are better able to ensure the physical safety of their families, with less stress for themselves and their children. Similarly, when emergency response plans prioritise the needs of children, stress and distress for both children and their parents can be significantly mitigated.

Specifically addressing the needs of infants, children and families in disaster preparedness and planning for disaster response, relief and recovery is critical. Our corresponding practice paper provides guidance on supporting families, communities and services in preparing for disasters.

Who is involved in disaster response and relief?

Since 2009, Australia’s national response to disaster management in policy has been resilience-based. The National Strategy for Disaster Resilience recognises that our capacity to endure and recover from emergencies and disasters requires a national, coordinated and cooperative effort. It stresses that the success of a resilience-based approach relies on a commitment to shared responsibility from governments, communities, businesses, volunteer organisations and individuals.

The key principles of emergency management are:

  • shared responsibility
  • integration
  • collaboration; and
  • coordination (Emergency Management Australia, 2017).

Those principles can and should underpin a whole-of-community approach to child-centred and family-focused psychosocial support during and immediately after a disaster.

Emergency services and volunteer organisations share responsibility with local government, agencies and service providers, including schools, early learning services, hospitals and health services, and communities (Emergency Management Australia, 2017). Practitioners working in these services play an essential role in supporting children and families during disaster response and immediate relief.

Why is it important to support the mental health of infants and children during and immediately after a disaster?

Research shows that infants and children are susceptible to adverse mental health outcomes after exposure to a disaster, due to their physical and emotional development and reliance on adults for protection (Chui et al, 2022). Actions to support the mental health of infants and children who experience a disaster are crucial to minimise the risk of adverse outcomes. To learn more about why infants and children are at greater risk and protective factors for their mental health in the context of disasters, see our practice paper, Why we need to support infants and children before, during and after disasters.

Many infants and children who experience a disaster, whether directly or indirectly, will have a ‘stress response’. This is when in response to a perceived threat, our bodies release hormones to boost alertness and energy levels.

Experiencing stress during and after a disaster won’t necessarily cause a trauma response or mental health difficulties in infants or children. In fact, stress can be tolerable if it is brief, mild to moderate in magnitude, short in duration, and the child is supported by stable and responsive environments and relationships. However, like adults, children who experience a disaster are at risk of developing reactions that persist and affect their daily lives after the events have ended.

Infants and children (and adults) who have been through a disaster can experience acute or severe stress and may remain in a heightened stress response for some time. Possible causes include things children have seen or experienced, being separated from their families during the rush of evacuation, or feeling overwhelmed by an overcrowded or chaotic evacuation centre. When children experience severe stress or prolonged adverse events, such as a disaster, it can negatively affect their mental health and development in the longer term.

Effective disaster response and relief interventions mitigate the effects of stress as soon as possible. This requires practitioners to take actions to prevent or reduce the stressors children and families are exposed to during and immediately after a disaster. It also includes offering families strategies to cope with these exceptionally stressful circumstances.

‘My mum was frantic – we hadn’t really experienced anything like this before – but when she was calm, when we knew we were safe, that made me more calm in that situation as well.’

- Willow, 22 years old, reflecting on her experience of disaster

Supporting parents during and immediately after disasters is key to reducing the potential impacts on their children. For children, particularly infants, their parents are the primary source of safety, comfort and care. In a disaster, parents’ responsiveness affects how infants and children cope. Practitioners can assist families by helping them to access the resources and supports they need, listening to their concerns and emotions, and linking them to services. Psychosocial support, including practical support, reduces stresses on parents and allows them time and emotional energy to be able to notice and meet their children’s needs. Further, providing support to parents can foster positive parent-child interactions and attachment, which are crucial for children’s development and mental health (Ronan et al., 2007).

Practitioners involved in disaster planning, response and relief play a crucial role in supporting the social and emotional wellbeing of community members, especially infants, children and families. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, practitioners can provide support, reassurance and protection to the whole family unit, helping children and families to cope and adapt.

Looking after your own wellbeing

Looking after yourself is essential to your ability to look after others during a disaster. This involves:

  • prioritising your physical and emotional health
  • setting boundaries between caregiving responsibilities and personal needs
  • seeking support when necessary; and
  • acknowledging triggers and vulnerabilities.

High workloads, limited resources, ethical dilemmas, vicarious trauma, burnout and compassion fatigue can all adversely affect your wellbeing as well as your ability to provide psychosocial support to others. Look out for any signs of stress, trauma or burnout, and seek the support of colleagues and managers. If you’re an organisation leader, ensure your staff have access to adequate resources and support – many of your practitioners may be members of the affected community and personally impacted by the disaster.

There may be times at the height of the disaster response or relief process when you experience moments of fear or loss of control. That is normal and OK. If it does happen, these simple strategies may help:

  • Take deep breaths. Your breath is always there for you when you need it. It can help you to ground yourself and calm your body and mind.
  • Focus on the one next thing you need to do (as opposed to feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of what’s happening around you).
  • Focus on what you can control.
  • If you do become emotional in front of a child in your care, explain that it’s OK to be afraid and natural to feel overwhelmed. Reinforce that you are taking steps to manage the situation and keep them safe.
  • If possible, step away for a few moments.
  • If possible, seek the support of others.

The five elements of psychosocial intervention

Psychosocial support during and immediately after a disaster (as well as in the longer-term) is crucial to protect the mental health of both children and adults. It includes practical (sometimes called ‘material’), emotional and psychological support targeted to an individual’s, family’s or community’s needs.

There are five core elements of psychosocial support that can be applied to ease the stress, fear and anxiety children (and adults) experience during and immediately after a disaster (Hobfoll et al., 2007; IFRC, 2009).

The five elements of psychosocial support are:

  • Promoting a sense of safety
  • Promoting calm
  • Promoting connectedness
  • Promoting self-efficacy and collective efficacy
  • Promoting hope

Practitioners involved in disaster response and relief efforts can use these five principles as a guiding framework to support individuals in distress.

It’s important to remember, however, that every infant and child has unique needs, strengths and challenges and therefore will require a personalised and child-centred approach. Psychosocial interventions must be tailored to a child’s age, developmental abilities, cultural background and coping strategies.

You can learn more about these elements and access practice examples in our papers about psychological first aid.

Key practices in supporting infants, children and families during and immediately after a disaster

In a disaster, the priority is always to protect people from harm – both physical and psychological.

This section presents key practices that facilitate child-centred and family-focused approaches as part of disaster response and recovery efforts to reduce the risk of adverse physical and mental health outcomes for infants and children.

It is not essential to implement all these strategies, given the challenging circumstances you will be working in during a disaster; applying even some of them will have a protective effect. Always prioritise physical safety and protection, as that is crucial to an individual’s mental wellbeing too. Providing timely psychosocial care – which includes practical, emotional and social support – to families will further reduce the likelihood of infants and children experiencing prolonged stress and mental health difficulties in the long-term.

‘One of the key things in terms of support needs is supporting parents and caregivers to be present for their children in safe ways. Because their children need their parents. They need their parents to be present so that their needs can be met.’

- Mum of two reflecting on her family’s experience of a bushfire

The following strategies may be used by practitioners who are directly supporting infants and children during and immediately after a disaster, and by those working with parents. By providing practical and emotional support, you can help to lighten parents’ loads and reduce their stresses. This increases their capacity to notice and respond to their children’s needs, which is beneficial to children’s coping and emotional wellbeing.

Strategy one: Ensure safety

Act early

  • Ensure families and services with children in their care act early, taking precautions such as seeking shelter or evacuating to a safe place – family or friends’ homes, or evacuation centres as a last resort.
  • Whenever possible, encourage families to unite at home early (e.g. return from work, school or early learning services) in preparation for anticipated disasters. This means they can support each other but also prevents parents putting themselves at risk trying to get home or collect children in hazardous conditions. A proactive approach prioritises the safety of both parents and children, minimising the potential for harm to the entire family unit during the disaster.

Stay informed

  • Listen to guidance from local authorities about safe places to go during the disaster, when to take shelter, and when it is safe to leave your home or place of shelter. Situations can change rapidly, so it’s important to stay up to date with the latest information – via radio, television or online. Given the potential hazards after a disaster, such as fallen or burning trees, live powerlines or flood erosion, remind parents with children in their care not to return home until they’re told it is safe to do so.

Limit exposure

  • Ensuring children’s safety and protecting them from the impacts of disasters also includes limiting their exposure to distressing sights and sounds.
  • As much as possible, infants and children need to be shielded from potentially traumatising scenes (such as seriously injured or extremely distressed people), conversations that may worry or distress them, and graphic images and descriptions in media coverage of the event.
  • Try to monitor and manage children’s exposure and access to information and news (e.g. via social media, online news, TV or radio). This is particularly important if children are already overwhelmed or distressed. Limiting children’s exposure to the disaster doesn’t mean that parents and other adults caring for children, including practitioners, need to hide their own distress or not talk about what is happening. It is necessary to have conversations with children about what they may have noticed, encourage them to ask questions, and provide reassurance.
  • Also consider how you can support parents to take time away from their children to cope with their emotions privately. For example, having a child-friendly space in an evacuation centre that is staffed can enable parents to have time away from children to express their emotions or distress, talk about the disaster or access psychosocial support services.

Use clear communication

  • Clear and accessible communication improves access to support and resources, helps families to better cope with uncertainty and stress, and prepares them for future disasters (Bird et al., 2012).
  • When sharing disaster information and updates with families, use clear, concise and accessible (‘plain’) language. If appropriate, use a variety of communication channels including text messages, social media and public announcements. Ensure all information that is offered is verified; it’s easy for misinformation to spread during and immediately after a disaster, which has the potential to cause further distress.
  • Identify the most common first languages of families in your community and provide translated materials (and interpreters where possible) to ensure families can access essential information and support.

Consider potential new hazards

  • Think about actions needed to protect children in the aftermath of a disaster. Some hazards may lead to new hazards – for example, shock waves from earthquakes or floods after a cyclone.
  • Disaster damage and debris can also present new risks for children and families: for instance, children should not be allowed to play in flood waters or near storm drains due to the risks of injury, infection and death, despite the water appearing unthreatening.

Strategy two: Provide practical support

Meet basic needs

  • Ensure children and families have access to essential supplies, such as food, water, medication and sanitary items (including nappies).
  • Often families may not have the supplies they need after evacuating, or their supplies may have been destroyed or damaged. Providing age-appropriate necessities to families when they arrive at an evacuation or recovery centre can significantly ease parents’ stress and anxiety. This includes offering nappies in various sizes, age-appropriate toys, bottle-feeding equipment, and designated spaces for infant feeding and for children to sleep.
  • In another situation, meeting the basic needs of families with dependent children after a disaster might mean providing safe drinking water, medications, or access to a generator to charge a child’s wheelchair.
  • If it is not safe or feasible for families to stay in their home in the days after a disaster or they need to relocate, they may need support with transportation, access to fuel or cash.
  • Where people need to queue for essential supplies in evacuation centres or immediately after disasters, creating processes to prioritise at-risk populations, such as families with young children, can make a big difference.
  • Beyond meeting physical needs, securing the resources families need can alleviate parental stress and overwhelm, which will benefit children’s wellbeing. In times of crisis, such as a disaster, the disruption to daily life can profoundly affect children, amplifying feelings of insecurity and distress. Easing the burden on parents by providing necessary supplies allows them to focus more effectively on comforting and supporting their children, thereby strengthening family bonds and promoting emotional wellbeing amid adversity.
  • In the chaos of a disaster, parents often prioritise their children’s needs over their own, neglecting essentials like food and water. Remind parents of the importance of attending to their own basic needs. Doing so not only safeguards their physical and mental wellbeing, it supports them to meet their children’s needs.

For more information about meeting basic needs and practical support for families in evacuations and after the disaster, check out these other resources:

Facilitate access to services

  • Providing or enabling access to essential services can restore a sense of normalcy and security to children and families affected by disasters. Families’ immediate needs may include medical and health services, safe water and food, shelter and housing, laundry services, and/or emergency financial relief (such as government assistance packages for families requiring emergency or longer-term help).
  • Help families and children feel supported by explaining the assistance available, detailing any temporary limitations of service provision due to the disaster, and talking through next steps.
  • Having access to dedicated safe spaces after a disaster can bolster the overall wellbeing and resilience of children and families. Ideally these spaces are used to deliver services and activities tailored to the needs of children and families, providing opportunities for play, learning and socialisation in a safe and supportive environment. While this is not yet common practice in Australia, there are examples: for instance, 54 Reasons delivered ‘Mobile Child Friendly Spaces’ to provide immediate support to families in disaster-affected Australian communities, while they were waiting for long-term community recovery programs to commence (Save the Children, 2021).
  • Designated infant care areas can provide a safe and nurturing environment where parents can look after their infants and toddlers in the aftermath of a disaster. These spaces offer parents a respite from the chaos and stress of the disaster, allowing them to relax, feed, bond and interact with their babies and toddlers in privacy and comfort. Additionally, these areas serve as community hubs where parents can connect with one another, share experiences and offer mutual support. Importantly, these spaces also provide access to essential health and support services, ensuring that parents and their children receive the care they need during this challenging time. Read more in Action Contre La Faim’s manual on implementing ‘baby friendly spaces’ in emergencies.

Strategy three: Keep families connected

  • When children are separated from their parents or caregivers, they may experience severe anxiety, fear, grief and trauma that can have lasting negative effects on their development and mental health. Separation can also adversely impact the safety and wellbeing of parents.
  • Sometimes children may not be able to stay with their parents during a disaster – for example if parents are serving as first responders or protecting their property. In these instances, children should stay with a familiar and trusted adult, such as a family member or neighbour.
  • Staying in touch with their parents or other family members via phone (if possible) can help to reassure children, ease their distress and promote a sense of connection.
  • Validate children’s worries and emotions, letting them know that it’s OK to feel scared or uncertain. This provides a sense of comfort and hope; it lets them know they’re not alone and that others are focused on their safety and wellbeing.
  • In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, children benefit from being in the care of their parents whenever possible. Parents provide children with emotional support, comfort, protection and stability in times of uncertainty and chaos. They also help children to make sense of what has happened and cope with their feelings and reactions.

‘Just the worry of not knowing where my dad was during [the fire] and no one being able to give me an answer on that, just the stress of that… I don’t know if it’s carried on. I know that I worry now, and I’m 22 and I still worry where my mum’s gone and she’s just gone down to the shops.’

- Willow, 22 years old, reflecting on her experience of disaster
  • If parents need to undertake essential tasks or take a break from being with their children, encourage them to use the support of safe and trusted family members or friends.
  • Having child-friendly spaces in evacuation centres and restoring child care and educational services as a priority after a disaster enables children to engage in developmentally-appropriate activities in a safe and supportive environment while their parents attend to essential tasks.
  • However, children should not be left in such spaces, or separated from their family, for extended periods. Some children may not be ready to be apart from their parents immediately after a disaster; it can be distressing and overwhelming for them.
  • Providing or facilitating help with practical tasks can lighten parents’ load, providing them with more time and emotional energy for supporting their children. This supports family connection and stability during this critical time.
  • In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, children and families should be encouraged and aided to maintain close contact with their relatives, friends and support networks to access emotional support and assistance. Strengthening social connections – particularly with those who have been through a similar experience – can be comforting and reassuring and aid in recovery.

Strategy four: Protect and support unaccompanied children

  • Unaccompanied children, including children who may be bereaved, are at greater risk of physical and psychological harm (including abuse).
  • Becoming separated from your family can be very distressing. Research shows it increases the risk of psychological harm following a disaster, regardless of age (Richardson et al., 2016), but this risk may be higher for children due to their developmental stage and their reliance on adults.
  • Children’s wellbeing and reunification needs may vary depending on how they were separated from their families. They may have been at school or early learning at the onset of the disaster, for example, or become separated from their family during a risky evacuation. Different scenarios may involve different levels of protection, support, fear, anxiety, uncertainty and communication challenges.
  • Ensure an unaccompanied child is not left unsupervised. Find a trustworthy and supportive adult who can take care of the child in a safe place, and then prioritise trying to identify and reunite them with their parents, relatives or caregivers as quickly as possible.
  • The next priority is to offer psychosocial care in a safe, supportive environment. Allow the child to express their feelings and grief. For example, they may be distressed if their parent(s) or family member(s) have died, they have lost a much-loved pet or their home, or they’re fearful for the safety of their friends and family members. Reassure and comfort the child and encourage hopefulness by keeping them updated about what’s happening to reunite them with their parents/relatives (if you have accurate and verified information).
  • It’s common to feel overwhelmed and upset when caring for distressed children and families. Take a break, chat to a colleague or seek professional support if you need it.

Strategy five: Provide emotional support

Research shows that emotional support plays a key role in reducing distress, enhancing resilience and promoting the recovery of children and families affected by a disaster (Powell et al., 2023).

The following are some key things to consider when providing emotional support to children and families.

  • Have open and honest conversations with children about what’s happening, listen attentively to their observations and feelings, and provide age-appropriate information and reassurance to children and/or their parents.
  • Tailor support to a child’s individual needs, preferences and coping styles.
  • Encourage children and parents to draw upon existing skills and know-how that have helped them get through tough times in the past.
  • Psychological first aid (PFA) is a psychosocial care approach promoted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a universal intervention to support people during and immediately after a disaster or other potentially traumatic experience. It is often described as an essential part of the emergency management response.
  • Infants and very young children benefit from PFA provided to their parents, as it supports parents to manage their own emotional reactions and provide calm, reassuring support to children.
  • In offering PFA with infants and children, it is important to tailor information to their age and where they are at developmentally. Not only can PFA help to address the immediate needs of distressed infants and children, but it can also enhance their coping strategies and allow them to acquire new skills to regulate their emotions.

‘Being able to explain what the sensory experience might be like for them I think is also a really helpful thing to do. In the moment before the fires hit our house, I was able to relay to my two little children, “It’s going to be really noisy, and it’s going to be really scary and dark. It might sound like you’re next to a big aeroplane that’s taking off.” It helped demystify what was about to happen to them.’

– Mum of two reflecting on her family’s experience of a bushfire

Select the following headings to explore some practical strategies for providing emotional support during and immediately after a disaster.

  • Be aware of infants’ and children’s reactions to the disaster. Physical and emotional reactions are common and to be expected. Children, even infants, may experience heightened stress, and can exhibit signs of distress in various ways including clinginess, changes in behavior, and both non-verbal and verbal cues.


    A child’s reactions to a disaster aren’t necessarily a sign they will be traumatised by the event or experience mental health difficulties. Reassure parents that reactions are expected and often temporary, and that with care and support, most children will recover well after a disaster.


    Acknowledge and validate children’s emotions as well as their physical reactions. Let them know that it’s OK to feel scared, sad or confused. Use empathetic language to reassure them their emotions are expected and that many other people feel the same. You might say something like, ‘I can see that you’re feeling upset about what happened’ or ‘It’s normal to feel scared when things are uncertain.’ Validating their emotions gives children a sense of relief and safety.

  • Encourage children to express their thoughts, questions and concerns about the disaster. Create a supportive environment where they feel comfortable sharing their feelings and asking for help if needed. Listen attentively to their concerns and validate their experiences, offering empathy and understanding.


    During some disasters, children and families may face dangerous, scary and life-threatening situations, such as being trapped. In these instances, it’s crucial to acknowledge the reality of the situation and avoid downplaying the experience or the emotions it evokes.


    While encouraging expression is important, reflecting on potentially traumatic experiences can be distressing. It is important to create safety by acknowledging it’s OK for children to express their feelings when they’re ready and avoid pushing for discussion. Instead of directly asking a child to talk about what happened, you might say something like, ‘I know that what happened was really scary, and it’s OK if you’re not ready to talk about it right now. If you want to talk later, I’m here to listen.’

  • Offer comfort and reassurance to an infant or child by using soothing words and gestures and holding them or giving them a hug (with their permission). Reassure children that they’re safe and that adults are taking care of them.

  • Provide age-appropriate explanations of the disaster and its impact to help children understand what is happening. Use simple language and concrete examples they can understand, avoiding graphic or frightening details that could increase their distress.


    Emphasise the steps being taken to keep children safe and the support available to them. For instance, you might say something like, ‘There was a big storm last night, and it caused some flooding in our town. That’s why lots of people have come here, where we are high and safe from the floodwaters.’


    Reassure children that there are people who are helping, like emergency responders. Tell them what is happening and update them if plans change.

  • Children may feel overwhelmed by the chaos of a disaster. Re-establishing predictability can offer them a sense of control and familiarity.


    Where possible, encourage and support families to maintain some aspects of their routine or establish new routines or structures. For instance, sticking to regular mealtimes, bedtime routines and familiar activities as much as possible, even if the circumstances are challenging.


    Encourage children to have comfort items with them during the disaster, such as their favorite toy or blanket. These familiar objects can provide children with a sense of security and predictability despite the uncertainty and help foster hope that a ‘new normal’ is possible.

Support children to engage in play and use other coping strategies

Play is a useful tool to support children’s emotional regulation and resilience during and immediately after stressful situations. Play serves as a natural mechanism for children to express emotions, connect with others, process their experiences, and engage in a normative activity amid chaos.

Families and practitioners can use various forms of play, such as imaginative play, storytelling or even structured games, to help children navigate their emotions and cope with stress – even during the disaster. For instance, providing children with toys like dolls or action figures can facilitate role-playing scenarios where children act out their feelings or reenact comforting situations. Interactive games that encourage collaboration and problem-solving not only distract children from distressing thoughts or circumstances, but also foster a sense of control and mastery over their environment. Through play, children can use crucial coping skills, including emotional regulation and social connection, which are vital for their wellbeing during and in the aftermath of a disaster.

Once physical safety is restored, encourage children and parents to try simple coping strategies to help them manage their emotions and reduce stress. This could include deep breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, creative outlets such as drawing or journaling, or engaging in physical activities to release tension. Model these coping strategies yourself and encourage children to practise them whenever they’re feeling sad, scared, anxious or overwhelmed.

The following are some other coping strategies that are helpful for infants and children after a disaster. You may be able to try some of these with the children you are supporting or recommend them to parents.

  • Offer the child more reassurance and warmth than usual (e.g. extra smiles, cuddles, speaking in a calm tone).
  • Have a singalong to the child’s favourite songs, or sing to the infant in a soothing way.
  • Read books together – the child’s favourite stories or, when parents and children feel ready, books written to support and comfort children who have experienced a disaster (e.g. the Birdie’s Tree online or printed storybooks).
  • Play with children’s bubble bottles and wands, which are ideal for calming their breathing.
  • Provide materials for drawing.

It is crucial to respect children’s autonomy and provide them with choices regarding activities that can support their emotional wellbeing during or immediately after a disaster. If a child is unwilling to engage in play or another suggested coping strategy, validate their feelings and offer alternative forms of support.

Strategy six: Recognise and support children’s agency

‘It’s about giving the children agency; I think children cope really well, they want to feel important and included and feel like they have a part to play.’

- Adrienne, single mother of 3, reflecting on the Brisbane 2011 floods
  • Every child responds differently to potentially traumatic events, depending on factors including their age, temperament, family circumstances, previous exposure to disaster and level of preparedness. Some children will be overwhelmed, distressed or uncertain. Others will express a desire to support others and have the capacity to take action.
  • Research shows that helping with disaster response and relief efforts can enhance children’s sense of agency, competence and self-efficacy, as well as improve their psychosocial wellbeing and resilience (Krishna et al., 2023). Where it is safe and developmentally appropriate, children’s participation should be fostered and encouraged. Agency can be fostered by giving children limited choices that are appropriate for their age and situation, and listening to their views and feelings, not just their words.
  • Some children respond to fear by seeking control in their environment. Parents and practitioners can help by providing warm and supportive boundaries, along with opportunities for the child to have an influence over their circumstances and surroundings (where appropriate).
  • Providing children with agency and an active (and suitable) role is consistent with Australia’s obligations as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. For more guidance on giving children a voice in matters that impact them, check out our article, In focus: Children’s rights.


Actions children can take in disaster response and immediate relief

Children often want opportunities to help their own family or other families who are going through the same thing as them. Some children might draw on their creative or problem-solving skills to assist with the disaster response and relief effort or offer ideas or thoughtful perspectives.

‘I think they felt like they had a part to play: “OK, so your job is to get the guinea pigs, and your job is to get the dog food”… So they felt really in control of what was happening.’

- Sarnia, mother of three, reflecting on her family’s experience of disasters

The following are some examples of how children in different age groups might be able to contribute to disaster response and relief.

Activities for preschoolers (around three to five years old)

Disaster planning and preparing to evacuate:

  • Helping to select some special items for their emergency backpack.
  • Helping to choose some snacks/food.
  • Keeping the family pet close before evacuation.
  • Playing with their siblings/being extra good while adults prepare to evacuate.

In an evacuation centre:

  • Drawing some artwork.
  • Keeping their space and toys tidy.
  • Playing with a younger sibling.
  • Playing with other children.
  • Suggesting ways to make the evacuation centre nicer for other children and families.

Activities for primary school-aged children (around five to 12 years old)

Disaster planning and preparing to evacuate:

  • Offering ideas for the family’s emergency plan.
  • Contributing to a student-led school emergency strategy (check out some award-winning school projects including the Harkaway Primary School bushfire strategy).
  • Packing their emergency backpack.
  • Packing backpacks for their younger siblings.
  • Helping with disaster preparations around the house, such as putting away outside toys and loose objects (in the case of a cyclone or extreme winds) or bringing doormats and shoes inside (in the case of a bushfire).
  • Preparing family pets for evacuation.
  • Keeping younger siblings distracted and happy while adults are preparing to evacuate.

In an evacuation centre:

  • Helping to keep the children’s activity area clean and tidy.
  • Writing their name on items that are theirs (e.g. a water bottle or toy they’ve been given).
  • Playing with or reading to their younger siblings.
  • Saying hello and being friendly when new children arrive.
  • Taking responsibility for the family’s pets.
  • Designing posters/signage to brighten the space and provide directions.
  • Providing ideas for ways to support others their age.

Strategy seven: Collaborate and coordinate services

  • Multi-sector collaboration and integration is key to effective support for infants, children and families during and after a disaster. It can also increase accountability and transparency of the disaster management process (Cavallo, 2014).
  • No single individual or agency has all the skills, knowledge and capacity to effectively respond to the wide spectrum of needs of children and families. Hence collaboration between government agencies, non-government organisations, health and mental health practitioners, education and child care professionals, community groups, and media outlets is crucial. It is also important for practitioners to develop partnerships and collaborative approaches that best address each individual or family’s needs.
  • It is essential to ensure common messages are communicated across agencies. This is practically helpful for families and practitioners, but also helps create a sense of a unified and cohesive community response. In turn, this reduces distress and uncertainty, streamlines access to support and services, and ultimately aids recovery.
  • To ensure families with young children receive the support they need after a disaster, agencies and services should collaborate to offer psychosocial support through proactive and coordinated outreach.

Reducing vulnerability through inclusive community engagement

As you reflect on how you can use the previous strategies in the context of your practice, it is important to be aware that some children and families are at greater risk of experiencing negative consequences following a disaster.

A child’s vulnerability in a disaster is often not determined by a single factor, but rather by the accumulation of multiple factors (e.g. social, environmental, physical and economic) over time. Consequently, some children may be at greater risk of adverse outcomes including mental health difficulties before, during and after disasters (Peek & Fothergill, 2010).

‘The children who experience the highest level of cumulative vulnerability are often the same children who suffer the most serious and enduring effects of disaster.’

- Peek & Fothergill, 2010

Children in families and communities that have experienced systemic disadvantage and structural inequities, intergenerational trauma, or who have often been overlooked in disaster planning and preparedness are also more likely to experience negative physical and mental health impacts. In many cases, families lack the resources to prepare for or respond to a disaster in ways that ensure their safety or will optimise their adaptation and recovery afterwards.

In contrast, families who have access to and can mobilise resources or support before, during and after disasters are less at risk of adversity, both physically and emotionally (Peek & Fothergill, 2010). Providing at-risk families with targeted support as part of disaster response and relief reduces the risks of physical and emotional adversities during and immediately after a disaster.

Consider the contexts, challenges and particular psychosocial support needs of children who:

  • identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander
  • are from a culturally and linguistically diverse background
  • have a disability or chronic illness
  • live in rural or remote areas
  • are in families experiencing poverty and/or homelessness
  • are exposed to family and domestic violence
  • are involved in the child safety or foster care system
  • are in rainbow families (LGBTQIA+ parents)
  • are in single parent families
  • have a parent with a mental or physical illness
  • have limited resources, including social capital (relationships, support networks and community connectedness).

For those wanting more guidance on how to better support families experiencing disadvantage, the Australian Institute of Disaster Resilience (AIDR) has developed the Community Engagement for Disaster Resilience handbook (AIDR, 2020). This resource presents nationally agreed principles of community engagement for disaster resilience and provides high-level guidance to support those who engage with communities at all phases of a disaster. It recognises families’ right to participate, and stresses the importance of acting respectfully and addressing systemic barriers to optimal engagement, participation and outcomes.

Considering the needs of infants, children and families in evacuations

During a disaster, families may need to evacuate to a safer place, in some cases to a designated evacuation centre. Evacuating in a disaster can be extremely stressful and potentially traumatic for children and their families, especially if they feel they are in a life-threatening situation, have lost loved ones, become separated from one another, or been exposed to danger or the destruction of their home. When evacuation processes are planned and implemented with a focus on the needs of children and families, it minimises the risks of physical or psychological harm.

The key practices described in the previous section can and should be considered by practitioners supporting families to evacuate or working in an evacuation or relief centre.

If you are responsible for planning and managing evacuations or evacuation centres (including provisioning them for families), our corresponding practice paper offers further information and strategies to meet the needs of infants, children and families.


Disasters can have devastating effects on children and their families, both physically and emotionally. This paper outlines key approaches and practices to help you deliver effective support to children and families during and immediately after disasters. These include providing psychosocial support to parents and caregivers, who are the main source of stability and security for children, and involving children in activities that foster their agency and resilience.

By following these approaches, you can help children and families cope and recover from the potentially traumatic impact of disasters and enhance their long-term outcomes.


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

More resources

More resources to support infants, children and families during and immediately following a disaster:


Australian Council for International Development (ACFID). (2016). Practice note: Psychosocial support. Australian Council for International Development.

Alisic, E., Zalta, A. K., van Wesel, F., Larsen, S. E., Hafstad, G. S., Hassanpour, K., & Smid, G. E. (2014). Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder in trauma-exposed children and adolescents: meta-analysis. British Journal of Psychiatry, 204(5), 335–340. DOI: 10.1192/bjp.bp.113.131227

Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience (AIDR). (2015). National Emergency Risk Assessment Guidelines. AIDR.

Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience (AIDR). (2020). Community engagement for disaster resilience. AIDR.

Bird, D., Ling, M., & Haynes, K. (2012). Flooding Facebook–the use of social media during the Queensland and Victorian floods. The Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 27(1), 27–33.

Cavallo, A. (2014). Integrating disaster preparedness and resilience: a complex approach using System of Systems. Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 29(3).

Chiu, M., Goodman, L., Palacios, C. H., & Dingeldein, M. (2022). Children in disasters. Seminars in Pediatric Surgery, 31(5), 151219. DOI: 10.1016/j.sempedsurg.2022.151219

Emergency Management Australia. (2017). Australian Emergency Management Arrangements. Australian Government.

Forbes, D., Fletcher, S., Wolfgang, B., Varker, T., Creamer, M., Brymer, M. J., Ruzek, J. I., Watson, P., & Bryant, R. A. (2010). Practitioner perceptions of Skills for Psychological Recovery: A training programme for health practitioners in the aftermath of the Victorian bushfires. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 44(12), 1105–1111.

Gibbs, L., Block, K., Harms, L., MacDougall, C., Baker, E., Ireton, G., Forbes, D., Richardson, J., & Waters, E. (2015). Children and young people’s wellbeing post-disaster: Safety and stability are critical. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 14(2), 195–201.

Hobfoll, S. E., Watson, P., Bell, C. C., Bryant, R. A., Brymer, M. J., Friedman, M. J., Friedman, M., Gersons, B. P. R., de Jong, J. T. V. M., Layne, C. M., Maguen, S., Neria, Y., Norwood, A. E., Pynoos, R. S., Reissman, D., Ruzek, J. I., Shalev, A. Y., Solomon, Z., Steinburg, A. M., & Ursano, R. J. (2007). Five essential elements of immediate and midterm mass trauma intervention: Empirical evidence. Psychiatry, 70(4), 283–315.

Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). (2007). IASC Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings. IASC.

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). (2009). Psychosocial interventions – a handbook. IFRC Reference Centre for Psychosocial Support.

Krishna, R. N., Spencer, C., Ronan, K., & Alisic, E. (2022). Child participation in disaster resilience education: potential impact on child mental well-being. Disaster Prevention and Management, 31(2), 134–143. DOI: 10.1108/DPM-03-2021-0110

McDermott, B., Cobham, V., Berry, H., & Kim, B. (2014). Correlates of persisting posttraumatic symptoms in children and adolescents 18 months after a cyclone disaster. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 48(1), 80–86.

Peek, L., & Fothergill, A. (2010). Children of Katrina. University of Texas Press.

Powell, T., Muller, J. M., & Wetzel, G. (2023). Evidence-based interventions for children and families during disaster recovery: Trends, lessons learned, and future directions. In: Ortiz, S. E., McHale, S. M., King, V., & Glick, J. E. (Eds.), Environmental impacts on families (pp. 23–39). National Symposium on Family Issues, 12. Springer, Cham. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-031-22649-6_2

Ronan, K. R., Crellin, K., Johnston, D. M., Finnis, K., Paton, D., & Becker, J. (2008). Promoting child and family resilience to disasters: Effects, interventions, and prevention effectiveness. Children, Youth and Environments, 18(1), 332–353.

Royal Far West & UNICEF Australia. (2021). Bushfire recovery [The children’s voices report].

Save the Children. (2021). After the storm: A perspective on the immediate relief and recovery approaches implemented to support children. Submission to Phase 2 of the Inquiry into the 2019–20 Victorian Fire Season.

United Nations Office of Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR). (2017). Sendai Framework Terminology on Disaster Risk Reduction. UNDRR.

World Health Organization (WHO), War Trauma Foundation and World Vision International. (2011). Psychological first aid: Guide for field workers. WHO.

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