Supporting children when disaster strikes

  • Chickens with girl
  • Fact sheets
  • Girl hugging adult

Photos: National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health

The National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health (NWCCMH) has created a suite of free online resources designed to provide practical information and advice about how best to support children before, during and after a traumatic event.

Exposure to community trauma events is all too common for many children. Worldwide, approximately 175 million children per year will be affected by natural disasters alone – not including those impacted by drought or acts of mass violence. Here in Australia, this past summer has seen our communities battle fires, floods, cyclones and the ongoing effects of drought. As parents, practitioners and community members, it is important to ask ourselves how we can best support children’s social and emotional wellbeing before, during and after these traumatic events.

Children are one of the most vulnerable groups during and after disaster events. They depend on adults for safety and protection, are in formative periods of physical and psychological development, and may be unable to recognise hazards on their own.

Research indicates that responses to potentially traumatic events will vary depending on a child’s age, developmental stage, personality, pre-incident functioning and previous life experiences, but also critical is how the adults around them react during and after the disaster.

Studies have also found that supporting children well and at the right time after a disaster or traumatic event can have a protective effect that mitigates against negative impacts, and may even lead to positive change (sometimes referred to as post-traumatic growth).

Throughout 2018, the Emerging Minds: National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health reviewed current disaster literature and conducted an extended needs analysis with key stakeholders, disaster management and recovery experts, and those with a lived experience of disasters and traumatic events. The goal was to better understand what is missing when it comes to supporting the social and emotional wellbeing of children in trauma events, and to create a resource to satisfy those needs.

Feedback from workers and families indicated that they felt the need for further knowledge and skills to  assess and support children following a disaster or traumatic event. While they were keenly aware children needed help and support after community trauma events, they wanted guidance on how to interact with children and families in ways that promote resilience and coping and decrease negative long-term impacts.

Based on these findings, the NWCCMH created the Community Trauma Toolkit.

Over a year in the making, the Toolkit covers five different disaster periods – preparedness, immediate, short-term recovery, long-term recovery and ongoing recovery – and contains tailored information for several key audiences including first responders, GPs, parents and caregivers, educators, health and social service practitioners, and community leaders. It includes a variety of engaging and interactive resources such as videos, podcasts, workshops (complete with comprehensive facilitator handbooks), fact sheets and more, all freely available on the Emerging Minds  website.

We now have good evidence that exposure to traumatic events increases the risk of serious and long-term consequences for children’s psychological, social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development. However, we also know that by providing the right support at the right time after exposure to such events, these impacts can be significantly reduced. Many different people will come into contact with children in the lead up to, during and after a traumatic event and each of these has the opportunity to impact their experience. The Community Trauma Toolkit aims to equip users with the knowledge and skills they need to best support children during these times. It is an opportunity to aid and improve the psychosocial wellbeing and resilience of not just children, but families and communities across Australia.


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