Supporting children’s mental health during disaster and traumatic events

The thoughts of everyone at Emerging Minds and the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health (NWC) go out to bushfire-affected communities across Australia.

In the midst of this difficult fire season, it is important to remember that children are particularly vulnerable both physically and emotionally to the impacts of disasters or traumatic events. Even if children have not been directly exposed to the event, they may well still be impacted by scenes depicted in the related media coverage.

The NWC team have put together a collection of evidence-based resources from the Centre’s Community Trauma Toolkit, developed together with the Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network. These materials focus on supporting children and families during and in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.

If you’re a first responder, GP, journalist, health or social worker, parent or carer, an educator or community leader, these resources will help you respond appropriately, in the most challenging of circumstances.

Resource list

Psychological First Aid is an internationally accepted strategy that can be used anytime, but is most widely used in the first hours, days and weeks following a traumatic event. Here are some practical ways that Psychological First Aid for children can be applied:

Ensure safety: Don’t leave children unattended. Where possible, protect them from witnessing further traumatic sights and sounds. Protect them from media or other people who want to talk to them and are not their family or part of the emergency response.

Keep calm: Speak in a low, calm voice. Tell children they are safe (when this is the case). Answer questions honestly, but without any frightening or graphic details. Reassure them that they have you and other adults looking out for them and that they will be with their families soon.

Connect with others: Reunite children with their families and loved ones as soon as possible following a disaster or traumatic event. If this is not possible, try to keep in touch by phone or online (e.g. private messaging).

Encourage self-efficacy: Where possible, encourage children to meet their own needs, for example, if they are agitated consider redirecting them to a calming strategy: ‘Hey I’m feeling a bit anxious, what do you think could help calm me down? Slow breath -what a great idea! Let’s try it together’

Have hope: Be mindful of children’s needs and reactions and be responsive to them. Be gentle and accept all responses. Don’t tell them to ‘be good’, ‘be brave’ or ‘stop being silly’. Some children may require physical touch for reassurance such as hugs, holding hands, or leaning on you. View resource.


Video: Supporting children in the immediate aftermath of disaster

Disasters and traumatic events are by nature, very stressful and it is normal to feel overwhelmed. However, it is important to remember that even after facing a disaster, most adults and children will cope and recover over time with the right help and support. This short video looks at how to support children immediately after a disaster or traumatic event. Watch video.


Fact sheets: Trauma responses in children by age

This series of fact sheets will step you through typical trauma responses in children that may be seen:


Podcast: Communities in the immediate aftermath of a trauma

This episode features Kate Brady, a Churchill Fellow and National Recovery Advisor at Australian Red Cross, about what happens in a community during and after a traumatic event. Kate discusses the difference between natural disasters and community traumas, what communities might experience, and how families, communities, and first responders can all respond to and support children in their recovery. Listen to podcast.


Factsheet: Traumatic events, the media and your child

Media coverage during times of disaster or traumatic events is important: it can provide those who are affected with news and information about where to go, how to get help and when it’s safe to return to their homes. Media coverage is also prolific and can often focus on the most frightening aspects/visuals of the event. Adults need to be mindful of how much exposure children have to coverage on TV, radio or the internet. This factsheet will help adults to support children to cope with the media coverage they see of a disaster or traumatic event. Access fact sheet.


Practice paper: Keeping children and families in mind – Guidelines for media professionals reporting on disaster or community trauma events

This practice paper highlights the need to keep children and families in mind when reporting on disasters and traumatic events. This practice paper contains guidelines intended to showcase best practice and to help protect children, families and also media staff. They are designed to sit along existing media guidelines and are supporting by the following fact sheet. Access paper.


Fact sheet: Journalists and media staff as parents and carers

Journalists and media staff who are parents need to be aware of their own self-care needs, and the needs of their children and families. This fact sheet offers a number of strategies for talking with children about work and looking after one’s self during and after reporting on disasters. Access fact sheet.


Fact sheet: Keeping children and families in mind when reporting on disaster and community trauma events

Following a disaster or community trauma event, the media acts as a crucial source of up-to-date factual information. In this fact sheet, the five strategies of Psychological First Aid provide a practical guide for journalists and media staff to have positive and supportive interactions with children during this time. Access fact sheet.


Emerging Minds Community Trauma Toolkit

The above materials form part of the Emerging Minds Community Trauma Toolkit. The Toolkit contains resources to help and support adults and children before, during, and after a disaster or traumatic event. It will help you understand some of the impacts of disaster and how you can help lessen these impacts.

Emergencies and disasters are extremely stressful and it is normal to feel overwhelmed. Children, even infants, can also be affected. They depend on the adults around them for safety and security, and will need reassurance, care, and opportunities to share their feelings. The resources in this toolkit provide a starting point for you to help children navigate the different stages of a disaster. View the full Toolkit here.

More resources

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