Supporting teenagers and young people through drought

Emerging Minds, Australia, October

Resource Summary

This resource offers parents practical strategies for supporting teenagers and young people through drought. It explores how drought impacts on teenagers’ and young people’s mental health and wellbeing, and what parents can do to help. 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.

Drought can make people living in rural communities question who they are and where they belong in the world, because it undermines life on the land. This can be especially stressful for adolescents. It’s important not to underestimate the effect drought may be having on your teenage child, even if they appear to be coping just fine. Regardless of their age, your child will need your support as the drought continues.

Keep them talking

Teenagers can struggle to share their feelings at the best of times, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to initiate conversations. Talk often with them about what is happening and how you’re feeling. Tell them it helps you to talk about your worries and emotions, so it might help them too. Ask how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking, and give them space to without judging their feelings. And if they’re not interested in talking with you, don’t force them. Let them know when they are ready to talk, you are there.

Here are some suggestions to get your teen talking:

  • Try starting conversations in the car, or when you’re out walking, doing a job or preparing a meal together. Teenagers are often much more willing to talk when they don’t have to look you in the eye. Text messaging can work well sometimes too. Not everything has to be about the drought of course – just try to get your teen chatting about their friends, school, sport or whatever helps you to connect.
  • If you’re worried that the drought is affecting them, gently open the conversation by alluding to a time when you weren’t coping. For example, ‘When I was your age and we had a few tough years on the farm, I often felt angry or scared. Do you ever feel like that?’ Another suggestion might be, ‘Lots of people seem pretty down right now about the drought. How are you feeling about it all?’ Try to ask open-ended questions that require more than a ‘yes’/‘no’ answer.
  • Be patient and accepting about how they are feeling. Avoid responses such as, ‘Don’t be silly’ or ‘You don’t need to worry about that’. Telling a child or teenager ‘not to worry’ won’t stop them from feeling what they’re feeling, it will just make them wary of sharing their feelings with you. Your teenager needs to know they can talk about their worries and fears with you. A better response might be, ‘It’s OK to feel worried about the livestock – I do too! But we’re all doing OK and we’ll get through this together.’
  • If your teenager lives away from home (for example, at a boarding school), they may not understand the full impact of the drought. This can make things challenging for both of you – for example, if you’re struggling financially and unable to pay for them to do the things their peers are doing. Find a time to have a calm, open conversation with your teen about the drought and how it’s impacting your daily life back home. Let them know that you may need to make some changes for a period, and what this might mean for them. Reach Out has more information about talking to a teenager about financial issues.
  • Answer all questions honestly and factually (as best you can). Depending on their age and abilities, you could ask how much detail they want. Reassure them that you’re doing everything possible to manage the situation. Who knows – they might offer a solution you haven’t even considered. Children and young people will make their own meaning from a situation using whatever information they can get. Without the facts, they’re more likely to blame themselves and make things up that’s far more extreme than the truth.
  • It’s OK to admit you don’t have all the answers. For example, you might say something like, ‘I don’t have the answer to that right now, but we’re working on it, and I’ll let you know as soon as I do.’

Listen to the third episode in our drought podcast series for more information on keeping an open conversation with your child.

‘You don’t have to have answers to all of your child’s questions or problems. You ARE the answer. Feeling safe and loved in their relationship with you is absolutely the most important thing.’

– Dr Andrea Baldwin, clinical psychologist

Be ‘present’ at home

Create a calm, welcoming space where your teenager feels safe, loved and valued. It can be hard to pull yourself away from the computer/phone at night if your family finances constantly need attention, or you want to keep up to date about the drought and what’s going on in the world. It can also be hard to pull teenagers away from their own rooms and devices. But teenagers and young people benefit from one‑on‑one time with adults as much as younger children do – especially when they’re going through a tough time.

Try to be ‘present’ at the end of the day for casual conversations and downtime. Share dinner as a family, find a TV show you both enjoy, or ask your teen for other ideas of things you can do together. Creating time for connection through a shared activity – even if it’s just once a week – can make a big difference.

Stick to your routines

All children, including teenagers, thrive on consistency. While it can be tempting to allow normal household routines and rules to slip during times of stress (and that’s fine for a short while), maintaining daily routines and setting gentle but firm boundaries is good for your teenager’s mental health and wellbeing. This includes boundaries around sleep hygiene, screen time and school attendance. The Raising Children Network outlines screen time management strategies that can help set limits and manage your teenagers’ expectations about their usage.

When children are worried about the family’s livelihood or their parents’ wellbeing, they can often be tempted to skip school to stay home and help out. If your teen is refusing to go to school, reminding them why their studies are important and reassuring them that you have everything under control may help.

Sometimes, teenagers display different behaviours when they’re feeling unsure about their emotions, or they’re angry, lonely or feeling misunderstood. They might start engaging in risky behaviours, like binge drinking or staying out late, or being mean or disrespectful to their siblings and parents. It’s important to keep this in mind and look beyond your teen’s behaviours to try and understand the feelings behind it. For example, you might tell them it’s OK to be angry about the drought and other challenges they may be facing, but it’s not OK to be rude or to act in an unsafe way. Remind them that actions have consequences, all throughout life.

Although keeping boundaries (and your cool) might be difficult when you’re under stress yourself, maintaining these routines and rules will help to provide a sense of safety and stability for your young person.

Empower them

Drought can create a feeling of powerlessness, which can easily topple into feelings of helplessness. Recognising teenagers as young adults and allowing them to make decisions, even in small matters, can help counter these feelings.

These choices could be as simple as what to watch on TV or what to have for dinner. If you live on a farm, you could suggest a few jobs you’d love some help with, before asking if they’d be happy to do any of them.  Chances are your teenager already helps out around the place, and the last thing you want to do is overwhelm them with extra responsibilities. But if they have the capacity (and you need the help), tell them you could really use a hand.

Of course, they might moan initially (what teenager doesn’t?) but ultimately being involved in the decision making will empower and encourage them, and counteract any potential feelings of loneliness or isolation. It will help them to feel like they are contributing to the family, and can teach them a bit about managing hardship. These are valuable lessons they can pass on to others and look back on later in life.

You can hear families and health professionals talk about giving your child the opportunity to make decisions in the Emerging Minds drought podcast series.

‘Taking an interest in what your child or young person is doing around the farm…is a great way of building their self-esteem.’

– Dr John Dean, clinical psychologist

Stay connected

Sadly, isolation and drought tend to go hand-in-hand, as people turn inwards to cope with their feelings and avoid burdening others who are also doing it tough. While it can be helpful to step back from your community when you’re feeling overwhelmed, staying connected over the long term is really important for the whole family’s wellbeing and recovery.

Research shows that building positive feelings about their community is key to a teenager’s feelings of resilience during drought.1 Reach out to close friends and family, and keep going to social and sporting events to ensure your teenager maintains those community connections.

Check out our podcast for more information on supporting your child’s social connections during a drought.

Look after yourself

We know this might seem impossible when you’ve got so much on your plate. But as a parent, your behaviour and moods have a direct impact on your teen in terms of their stress levels, and their relationship with you.

As you navigate your own emotions and experiences of the drought, it’s important to be aware of how they’re perceived by your teenager. We know that teens pick up on their parents’ emotions, even when they’re not spoken about. Common things your teenager might notice is a change in your tone of voice or facial expressions when you’re anxious or angry, and changes in your behaviour, like working longer hours or talking more about finances.

Society often gives parents the message that they’re meant to be self-sacrificing. This can make parents feel guilty for even thinking about taking time out for themselves. But your long-term wellbeing is crucial to the family unit. If you can find a way to take your mind off the stress of the drought, it will help not only your state of mind and wellbeing, but your teenager’s, too.

Try to remember the things that helped you to relax or laugh before the drought – from exercise and music to watching TV, cooking or crafts. Happiness can be contagious, so show your teen that even though life is hard right now, it’s still possible to have fun and enjoy the little things.

By taking time to focus on your own wellbeing, you will create a supportive environment for your family and provide space to make choices which help your teenager’s wellbeing. These might include moving away from your teen when talking about finances or finding age-appropriate ways of sharing your emotions.

This resource offers more strategies for looking after your wellbeing during a drought.

Put yourself in their shoes

What is your teenager seeing and hearing on a day-to-day basis? How might this make them feel? Remember, you’re an adult – you likely have years of experience coping with adversity. Try remembering how you felt after a bad experience at their age. We know that young minds are shaped by interactions with family, friends and community. If you can try to see things through your child’s eyes, it might help you to better predict their reactions and behaviours, and also help them to navigate through these tough times.

This podcast episode offers more information and ideas around looking at things through your child’s eyes.

Be a positive role model

At times, the ongoing stress of the drought might bring up big emotions for you. While this is completely normal, it’s important to remember that parental stress can flow on to affect children’s mental health and wellbeing.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you have a bad day or get upset; instead, be honest with your child about how you’re feeling and what you’re doing to manage those feelings. For example, ‘I’m feeling a bit stressed right now, so I’m going to go for a walk and get some fresh air – that always helps me to feel a bit better’. This will help to reassure your child that none of this is their fault, and can help them to make sense of what is going on. It will also teach them that it’s OK to have these feelings and give them some ideas as to how to manage them.

Focus on the future

It’s important to remind yourself and your teenager that this drought will eventually pass. We know this gets harder as time stretches on, but try to keep planning and doing the regular activities that make you all smile and forget about the drought for a few hours. Keep a list of what you’re all looking forward to in the future. This will help your teenager to maintain a positive focus.

Listen to parents and practitioners talk about focusing on the positive future in this podcast episode.

‘Your teenager might swear at you and use some pretty colourful language. That’s an opportunity…you can say, “Look mate, I don’t appreciate you swearing at me, but I’ve noticed you getting angrier and angrier, so maybe you can tell me what’s going on. Are you OK and is there something I can help you with?”’

– Dr John Dean, clinical psychologist

Signs your teen may need additional support

In times of stress, teenagers respond in different ways. They might withdraw, or stop paying attention at school, or start working really hard to try to make you happy. They might display different emotions, seem anxious, get angry at seemingly small things, or be more tense than usual.

While most teens do recover, a minority will find the impacts of drought more difficult to deal with. The trauma might also make itself apparent years later. The important thing for you as a parent is to remain curious as the months and years go by, and to keep a lookout for changes in behaviour or signs that something isn’t quite right.

Your teenager may need some extra support if they’re having difficulties which:

  • persist for more than a month or worsen over time
  • represent a change from their normal behaviour
  • are more intense or frequent compared to young people of the same age
  • cause their behaviours to disrupt their classroom/others on a regular basis
  • prevent them from engaging in age-appropriate tasks
  • occur in multiple contexts (for example, both at school and at home)
  • are making you feel distressed and concerned about your family’s wellbeing.

Listen to our podcast on looking out for changes in your child’s behaviour for more information.

Who can help?

Your general practitioner (GP) is the best place to start – they can provide information, resources and advice on which type of professional support can best help your teen’s recovery. (Learn more about the role of a GP in this video.) However, your teenager may want to make their own decisions about their care. In this case, it’s important to provide them with resources around seeking help (like those listed at the end of this fact sheet) and be available to support them when they’re ready.

Chances are you’re also dealing with your own feelings of grief, anger and exhaustion. It can be tough to juggle your own responses with your responsibilities/roles as a parent, partner and community member. But it’s important to remember that you can’t pour from an empty cup. Taking care of your own wellbeing (‘filling your cup’) is key to your child’s mental health and recovery.

If you need support, please reach out to a trusted friend, family member, GP or other health professional. You can also find more information and tips for taking care of yourself during this challenging time in our fact sheet, Looking after your wellbeing during a drought.

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.

Suicide Call Back Service provides 24/7 telephone, online-chat and video counselling to people at risk of suicide, those bereaved by suicide and carers of someone who is suicidal. Call 1300 659 467 or visit the Suicide Callback Service website.

Kids Helpline offers free 24/7 support for both parents and children. You can call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, chat with a counsellor online, or send Kids Helpline an email.

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.

Useful links for parents

Useful links for teenagers


1. Dean, J. G. & Stain, H. J. (2010). Mental health impact for adolescents living with prolonged drought. Australian Journal of Rural Health, 18, 32–37.

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.

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