Supporting children and youth in disasters

This page provides an initial context for those working in a school within a community impacted by bushfire. 

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Exposure to disasters such as bushfire can have life changing consequences. Although many community members make a full recovery following a bushfire, often pre-existing routines are disrupted. Various aspects of life can be affected as improvised crisis routines replace ‘normal’ routines. This can lead to individuals and families being at risk of compromised health and wellbeing. Community cohesion may be reduced.

Coming to terms with unusual and disturbing experiences need impressions to be digested and processed. This is best done by communicating in a secure and supportive social network. It is important to encourage open communication (in all forms – for example, talk, writing, drawing, play and drama) about the experience and how it changes through the recovery. This means making it safe to do so and helping everyone understand the emotions that come when it is first expressed are part of the digestion and relieve tension. With calm, confident support, emotional distress subsides and usually results in feeling better.

For school staff and leaders working in an affected community, it is also important to assist students, families and carers to recognise, minimise and adapt to the effects of the disruption caused by bushfire. Equally important is developing an understanding of students’ unique bushfire experiences and the amount of impact. Sometimes students will not or cannot verbalise their experience with effects being more ‘visible’ through changes in emotion and behaviour. It is important to talk with students to comprehend the individual framing of their bushfire experience.

Post disaster context  

  • Help and support are often provided by professionals who normally work with adults.
  • These professionals may be anxious about the wellbeing of children and youth.
  • They may over or underestimate child and adolescent capacities.
  • Children and youth are often unable to communicate their needs.
  • Assumptions may be made based on an adult perspective.
  • Student needs may be inadvertently devalued if they do not fit adult/school priorities.

Fundamental resources for healthy development include:

  • family and familiar adults
  • peers, friends and other familiar children/youth
  • security and safety for self-expression
  • time to express and reflect
  • privacy and a bounded world
  • routines and a predictable world
  • attention, interests, love
  • challenges within developmental capacities.

The impact of disasters includes:

  • threat to life, attachments
  • separation from family, home
  • loss of people, places, pets, possessions, landscape
  • loss of routines, security, comfort zone
  • exposure to high arousal and extreme states
  • helplessness, unprecedented emotions
  • activation of reflexes and survival mechanisms.

Child and youth development dictates differing levels of support

  • Development requires dependency on adults.
  • Children and youth maturing, both emotionally and cognitively.
  • They do not have the range of experiences that adults do to make sense of what has happened.
  • They might have limited adaptive capacities and there is potential to distort and misunderstand. They may need support to comprehend/understand their world.
  • Attention from adults and the support of the school community is vital.

Responses in children that indicate a need for support include:

  • re-experiencing the event, fear of recurrence
  • disorganised or confused behaviour
  • somatic complaints – head or stomach pains
  • hyperarousal in behaviour, emotions or body
  • disruptive or angry behaviour
  • anxiety or sadness, crying, worrying about others
  • inability to concentrate, learn
  • clinging and regressed behaviour
  • withdrawal, detachment, avoid talking or thinking
  • any significant change in behaviour or emotion following the disaster.

Responses in youth that indicate a need for support include:

  • anxiety, depression, anger, fear, guilt, disillusionment
  • fears and foreshortened sense of future
  • loss of meaning and motivation
  • retreat into or from peer group
  • withdrawal from family/peers
  • avoidance into pleasurable activity
  • substance use, thrill seeking, defying
  • any significant change in behaviour or emotion following the disaster.

Strategies to limit impact and damage

  1. Reduce separation: people, places, friends, possessions, community, animals.
  2. Engage the student: so they can begin to express their experience and understand what they experienced – through talk, play activity, and continue this periodically through the recovery.
  3. Manage emotion: reduce distress, engage emotions, provide comfort, protect from exposure.
  4. Help the student: to make choices, express needs, give power.
  5. Maintain: involvement in enjoyable normal activities.
  6. Media: monitor and manage the extent to which media coverage of the bushfire is accessed. A recommendation is to view only what is necessary.
  7. Climate change: for younger students and when possible, aim to keep the topics of personal recovery and climate change separate. For adolescents, explore their narrative about the bushfire – this may include the topic of climate change.