When Mother Nature gets mad: supporting kids during natural disasters


Please note that I am not a child health professional. My words are based on previous experience and knowledge of mental health resources. If you think your child (or yourself ) has been traumatised by recent or past events, please seek professional advice. 

These days it can be hard to protect our children from events happening in the world. Images and detailed accounts of current affairs are splashed across television, social media and radio broadcasts. Children are also especially attuned to their parents feelings, reactions and conversations, even if it is about events they don’t understand.

It would be lovely if we could wrap our young ones up in cotton wool and protect them from the not so nice happenings in the world, but this would be a very difficult and unrealistic task. In any case, would we be setting our children up to fail by doing this?

There does come a time when children start to take an interest in the world around them, whether we like it or not. Our job as parents is to help them make sense of what they hear and see, help them process their feelings and above all, let them know that they are safe.

The recent devastating weather and flooding across Queensland has reminded me of the need to be mindful of these things with my children, especially the eldest who is 6.

He has heard conversations, seen images on television and had a sense of something going on. He was deeply affected 2 years ago when his grandparents lost their house to flood (the image above is their street at the peak of the 2011 flood). He saw first hand the devastation and loss felt by people he loved dearly and for quite a while afterwards was fixated on all things flood-related. Although he is quite emotionally intelligent for his age and we worked through things together AFTER the event, when the recent disaster struck, I was more prepared and proactive in helping him process the events that were going on around him.

Here are a few simple things that I did to help him:

  • Talked openly about the event – this might not be a suitable approach for all children, especially younger ones, however my son works well with facts. I let him ask questions and answered as fully and honestly as possible. Once he understood why, when and how flooding occurred, he became more settled and did not fear floods every time we left the house or every time it rained.
  • Let him see some images/television – once again, this might not be suitable for all, however seeing images of rising waters and tales of people being rescued, helped to make the event real for him. His vivid imagination had waves crashing over the tallest of houses and sweeping away whole cities. It was also good for him to see how the water receded which helps him make sense of debris on bridges we drive past.  Note: It is important that children don’t become “saturated” by media coverage of disasters however, as this can instigate or exacerbate trauma.
  • Discussed loss of property vs loss of life – it’s very important to me that my children realise that “things” are just that. Clothes, toys, furniture, even houses can be replaced, and while it may be very upsetting to lose those things that are precious to you, the most important thing is your life and that of your loved ones.

I want to reiterate that we were not directly at risk of flooding, so my focus was around minimising fear by doing the above things. We have, however, been subject to bush fire risk recently and have taken a similar approach. Remember, each child is different, as is each circumstance.

There are some great resources and links available at the Queensland Health Mental Health and Wellbeing Resources for Recovery website regarding Disaster Recovery and Resilience including fact sheets, videos and website links. There are also many government and non-government services you can access if you or your child need additional support.

PS. Naomi at Seven Cherubs has also written this very helpful article about talking to children about natural disasters.

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