No two people will experience or respond to a natural disaster in the same way. The types of support a young person will need are different in the initial days to weeks following a natural disaster (known as response phase) to the following months (known as recovery phase).
Life changes for everyone during and after a natural disaster, even if we haven’t been directly present at the event. Direct exposure can be understood as the loss of possessions, the loss of safety or health, or the death of loved ones or animals. Indirect exposure is commonly understood as exposure via third parties, whether that be through stories of family and friends affected, or by exposure to media (radio, television, newspapers and social media). Both of these exposures can have an immediate and lasting impact on our mental health and wellbeing.
Young people are especially vulnerable to the indirect effects of natural disasters due to these events sometimes being their first exposure, their developmental stage and their increased likelihood of high levels of exposure to graphic content – particularly via social media.
There is no right or wrong way to react to a traumatic event. Some people might experience sadness, and seek connection to others whilst others might feel numb and become more disconnected. Following a natural disaster any reaction can be normal, you might notice disrupted sleep, eating patterns, changes in relationships or difficulty with routine activities like getting dressed or schooling.
These are normal reactions to not normal events.
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Supporting young people during the initial response to a natural disaster
The following tips are helpful in the initial days and weeks following exposure to a natural disaster:
- Validate the importance for young peoples’ need to focus on physical and emotional safety, and be with those who are helpful to their wellbeing
- Support young people to engage in activities that promote a sense of calm and feeling grounded (use of alcohol and other drugs can be counterproductive). Supporting young people to return to some routine and to re-engage in pre-exposure activities as much as possible is helpful (e.g., playing games or sports, hobbies etc)
- Facilitate connection with others, especially those that help young people feel okay
- Include young people in the repair and recovery of themselves, peers, families and your community. Fostering a sense of hope is important in a young person’s recovery
- Limit exposure to traumatic information through stories, and media (social and traditional). It can be helpful to take a break from the 24-hour news cycle.
(Hobfoll et al, 2007) 
Take care of yourself
Be kind to yourself and engage in self-care activities. These activities can be hard to do and especially easy to neglect when facing stressful or dangerous situations, but try to do something small for yourself. This can help you, and modelling these activities for your young person may be beneficial.
Supporting young people during the recovery phase following a natural disaster
Encourage your young person to engage in activities that promote a healthy headspace. Check our headspace’s tips for a healthy headspace for more information.
As much as possible, support young people to maintain regular routines and stay connected to regular activities such as sport, school, and spending time with friends.
People who experience traumatic events are often able to recover, and do not experience ongoing symptoms or difficulties, by using their own resources and the informal supports of family, friends and the broader community. For some it is important to access professional support to navigate these challenges. It can be hard to know when it’s time to seek professional support. Commonly, it’s when someone experiences difficulties for longer than a couple of months after an event, and it’s having an impact on the way they want to live their lives.
Common reactions and behaviours
People who have survived a natural disaster may feel a sense of grief and loss. There are no 'right' or 'wrong' feelings and they can vary significantly from one person to another. You might be supporting a young person whose family members, friends, neighbours or pets died during the natural disaster. Their home or possessions may have been destroyed or damaged. Young people sometimes may have trouble explaining their feelings, and they may seem 'cut off' or bewildered. It can help to sit with them to help name their experiences. Giving them words to describe their feelings may be helpful.
Trying to understand a natural disaster can be confusing, especially for young people. This may make them feel anger and more frightened as the days go by. Sometimes survivors of a disaster may feel guilty that they have survived while others have not. Young people may feel ashamed of how they are feeling. They may withdraw from other people or hide their feelings.
Sometimes people may feel anxious, frightened and unsafe for weeks or months after the disaster, despite being physically safe. This is a normal reaction to a frightening event.
Young people might 'act out' when they are grieving or traumatised. They may become aggressive or irritable, and start having problems at school. Alternatively, they might become withdrawn and 'clingy', and find it hard to separate themselves from family and friends.
Young people might develop physical complaints like stomach aches and headaches in response to their distress. Some young people may self harm, or use drugs or alcohol as a response to their emotions.
Reactions of parents/families
Most people, of all ages, recover well from the emotional effects of natural disasters. Family and friends can have an important role in the healing process for young people. But family and friends have their own problems to cope with, and you may find yourself juggling your own reactions to the disaster with your responsibilities for the young person. Reactions may include:
- guilt about not being able to shield your young person from the effects of the disaster
- fear and anxiety about the continuing safety of your young person
- negativity about the world in general, which you may not be able to conceal from your young person
- impatience and frustration about your young person making a slow recovery.
How to help your young person
Support your young person by maintaining regular predictable activities and routines. Encourage your young person to eat, rest and sleep well. It can be helpful to explain what will happen today and the next day, as best you can, and write down a plan to remind them. Provide as much security as possible by being around, giving your young person time to talk, and by developing some comforting routines. Involve your young person in choosing new belongings, or perhaps remember old toys and other treasured possessions with a 'goodbye ceremony'.
Tell your young person about what is being done to help the whole community. It’s important to give young people age-appropriate and accurate information about the situation, in order to prevent them from creating their own narratives that may be more confronting than reality. It can help to ask your young person what their concerns, questions and worries are.
It might be a relief for young people to know that their feelings are normal, but be careful to also acknowledge and respect their emotions. Do not dismiss or minimise the intensity and importance of their reactions.
When your young person is calm and feeling safe you can talk about how natural disasters are random and unpredictable. It can be helpful to correct any confused explanations of the disaster your young person may have.
Give your young person the chance to talk about what they miss and what they have lost, but do not push them to talk. Acknowledge that what has happened is not 'fair'. If you have family and friends that have died, tell them enough details so there are no 'secrets', without causing extra distress.
Young children might need only a small amount of information, but they do need reassurance that natural disasters are uncommon and they are now safe (if accurate). Try not to discuss worrying 'adult' issues about the disaster in front of young children.
Talk about the strengths you know your young person has, and how they can use them. For example, they might like to draw or tell stories, so let them do this to explain what has happened and how they are feeling. It's OK to talk about how the disaster has affected you, and how you are trying to get life back on track.
Make time to be with your young person, to do normal things, and to have some quiet time with them. Try to be available emotionally, although this can sometimes be hard when you, too, have a lot to cope with. Staying calm and in control can help your young person to feel safe and grounded.
Encourage your young person to step back from their problems or negative feelings and think of ways to reduce their distress. Help them work out ways to solve problems, and find ways to relax and reduce their anxiety.
Look after yourself and be true to how you feel. Try to keep your life as structured as possible. If you can, put off big decisions until you feel more stable. Get enough rest, and talk with friends, family and health professionals if you're feeling overwhelmed. Don't forget that caregivers need care too.
When to get help
You should think about getting help if the young person is having difficulties more than about six weeks after the disaster, or is not functioning well in normal activities. Services such as your local general practitioner, community health centre, school counsellor or local mental health service can provide advice and assistance.
Seek immediate help if you think the young person is at risk, for example of self harm. Call your local hospital, emergency services, Lifeline (13 43 57) or Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800).
The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.
Last reviewed 15 January 2020