16 tips to support your child’s recovery after a bushfire

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource offers simple, practical strategies to support your child’s recovery following a bushfire. It has been developed with the guidance of family members with lived experience, practitioners and researchers.


Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. For the purposes of easy reading, the term ‘parent’ encompasses the biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, as well as individuals who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child.

It’s important to give your child the time they need to recover from the effects of a bushfire event. And recovery doesn’t always follow a predictable path.

Most children who are significantly affected in the early days and weeks following the bushfire will improve with time, but for others it may take longer to recover. Some children may appear to cope well immediately after the bushfire, but start to feel or behave distressed later on.

Here are 16 simple tips for supporting your child’s ongoing recovery, lessening the likelihood of lasting difficulties, and connecting them to professional support if they need it.

1. Listen and remain curious

Regularly ask your child how they’re feeling and keep an eye out for changes in their emotions and behaviour. Stay curious as the weeks, months and years pass. Children can often get the message that they should be ‘moving on’ from the event. This can make them feel isolated if they’re not feeling OK, especially if they think everyone else is coping well. Let them know you’re always happy to speak with them about it.

Some children and young people may find it difficult to express their feelings or explain their emotions in relation to the bushfire. They may seem cut off or withdrawn (‘internalising’ responses) or they may begin acting in ways that are unusual for them. You can help by being curious about any changes you notice, encouraging them to name their experience and giving them words to help describe their feelings.

Remember that frequent, shorter conversations are often better than longer one-off chats. In the early months following the bushfire, it can be helpful to set aside a particular time to catch up with your child – perhaps on a weekly one-on-one walk, while you’re driving together, or during an activity you both enjoy. This gives your child the security of knowing that each week they can speak to you about how they’re feeling, the good things that have happened and the things that are worrying them. In the longer term, this might become a monthly conversation, or you might make time to chat or do something together on the anniversary of the bushfire.

2. Look for changes in your child’s emotions and behaviour

As well as talking to your child, it’s important to continue to be on the lookout for changes in their emotions, behaviour, mood and sleep patterns (including the presence of nightmares). It is also common for children to regress to behaviours typical of a younger child.

As the months pass after the bushfire, most children will adapt to their ‘new normal’. However, despite all the care you can provide, some children will still need extra professional support.

If your child’s difficulties don’t improve after 1–2 months and are impacting their daily life, or your child appears to be very anxious or sad, it’s important to seek professional advice from your GP or a health professional.

3. Reassure your child

Remind your child it’s normal to still feel upset after such a big event, and that you’re there for them. It’s also common for children (especially older children and adolescents) to feel angry, frustrated and confused after a natural disaster. The bushfire and its after-effects can seem so unfair, and (usually) there’s no-one to blame and nowhere to direct their frustrations.

Normalise any ongoing feelings of distress your child is experiencing and give them the time they need to process these feelings.

4. Be a positive role model

At times you may feel angry, sad or overwhelmed by the impacts of the bushfire. Be honest with your child about how you’re feeling, what you’re finding difficult, and what is helping you to get through each day. Normalise feelings of distress, but also reassure your child that with care, support and time, things will get easier. Make sure they know that none of this is their fault and that your feelings are caused by the bushfire. In doing so, you’ll be teaching them how to manage their own emotions.

5. Understand each child’s unique needs

As previously mentioned, everyone responds to distressing events differently. That even goes for children (and parents) in the same family.

It can help to discuss what’s tough and what’s helping you all to recover following the bushfire. Remind your children to be kind to each other and avoid criticising how their siblings are responding to the bushfire. Your children will learn from this; it shows them that it’s OK to feel differently from others and recover in their own way.

Sometimes, children feel more comfortable talking to adults other than their parents, particularly if they think the conversations are upsetting (for example, ‘Every time we talk about the bushfire, Mum cries and Dad goes quiet.’). Let your child know that it’s OK if they’d prefer to talk to someone else that they trust, such as a teacher, aunt or uncle, grandparent, sporting coach or youth worker. Young people may prefer to talk to their friends about what’s bothering them, but it’s important to still encourage them to talk to you or another trusted adult, particularly if you’re worried about them.

In the following video (24 seconds), Strathewen Primary School teacher Diane Phillips reflects on her experience teaching children after the 2009 Victorian bushfires.

6. Give your child extra time and attention

This can be difficult when families are recovering and demands on adults are high. Nevertheless, giving your child extra time and attention can help them to feel safe. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or lengthy. For example, you could join them in whatever game they’re playing, let them help you to cook dinner, or have a cuddle on the couch while you ask about their day. The important thing is that your child feels connected to you and can see that you’re making time for them.

7. Don’t expect perfection in yourself

All families argue and get frustrated with each other. And the physical and mental demands of caring for distressed children will be great – especially on top of managing bushfire recovery.

If you’ve had a bad day, lost your temper or broken down, it’s OK (and perfectly normal). Being kind to yourself and practising self-care is vital when caring for others. Come back together when things are calmer. Talk to your child, apologise if necessary and reassure them that they’re safe and that it’s not their fault that you’re upset. Remember, as adults it’s our responsibility to nurture the relationship with our children and to heal it when it’s been hurt.

8. Return to your routines

It can be tempting to allow normal household routines and rules to slip (and that’s fine for a short while). But remember that children do best when things are predictable, clear boundaries are set and followed, and they know what to expect. You don’t need to tackle everything at once – perhaps start with reinstating a regular bedtime, returning to a favourite family ritual (for example, movie night or reading stories together), or sitting down to dinner as a family a couple of times a week.

9. Look after yourself

Self-care is not an indulgence, it’s a priority. As the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Looking after your own physical and mental wellbeing following a bushfire is an essential part of supporting your child’s recovery.

If you’re feeling exhausted, overwhelmed or very anxious, it’s vital you seek extra support. Parents often put themselves last, thinking this is best for their families, yet we know that children are very sensitive to their parents’ wellbeing. They can sense stress and are affected if parents are unable to ‘connect’ and engage with them. This will often emerge as more challenging behaviours down the track (that are harder to address).

10. Ask friends and family for support

If you’re concerned about your child’s recovery, ask trusted friends and family to help by giving your child extra time and attention. You’ll find that many people want to help, but don’t want to intrude.

Children really benefit from close personal attention, particularly one-on-one interactions. It might be a neighbour spending time teaching your child crafts or gardening, or a special weekly call from a favourite uncle. These things help children feel connected and looked after and can reduce some of the pressure on you as a parent.

In the following video (22 seconds), Rachel (whose family experienced the 2009 Strathewen bushfires) talks about the importance of connecting with people following the fires.

11. Re-establish social connections

In the days and weeks after the bushfire, it will be normal for children to feel unsure about being away from you. Or they might be worried about what to say if friends ask them about what happened. Together with your child, role play ways to answer questions that help them to feel OK and safe. For example, ‘It was scary but we’re OK now’, or ‘The bushfire ruined our home, but Mum and Dad are going to rebuild it’, or ‘Can we please talk about something else?’

You could also rehearse ways they can seek help with their emotions, such as telling their friend’s parent that they would like to go home, or asking if they could read a book or watch a movie to be calm for a while. Put a plan in place and start with shorter play dates. If they’re going to a friend’s house, you might stay for the first 15 minutes and then say exactly when you’ll be back. Let your child know that you want them to spend time with their friends, and that it will be good for them.

12. Stay connected with your child’s school or Early Learning Service (ELS)

A child’s school or Early Learning Service (ELS) can offer a sense of safety and normalcy after a bushfire – even if the school or ELS looks different or has moved to a temporary location. Seeing their friends and peers again and getting back into the routines that school or ELS provides can be very helpful for your child’s recovery. These settings can also give children other activities to focus on and engage in, which can help to distract them from thinking about the bushfire. However, some children may find it difficult to manage their emotions, concentrate on learning, and be away from their family following the event.

When your child returns to school or ELS, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open so you can get a full picture of how they’re recovering. Children can seem perfectly fine at home but display worrying behaviours at their school or ELS, or vice versa. Good communication will also ensure any issues are dealt with sensitively and consistently. And children thrive on consistency!

13. Return to favourite activities

Children need time to play. It’s a way for them to make sense of adversity and trauma and can lift their spirits during tough times. Play helps children to explore their feelings and vulnerabilities and can help them to work through their fears. It also helps them to learn important skills for their development, including social and emotional skills.

It can really help to encourage your child back into their normal activities (where possible of course), particularly those with strong community ties like sport or music. Returning to family rituals and activities that you used to enjoy doing together can be helpful for everyone’s recovery.

If you or your child don’t have many connections outside the home, try to build new ones. Community connections enhance wellbeing. If you have the time and emotional capacity, getting involved with local charities can be a great way to connect with your child, give back to your community and maybe even take your mind off your own worries for a bit. It’s also a great way for your child to get informal support and feel useful. Older children and young people may like to begin their own recovery or resilience project, bringing a group of peers together to drive change in their community. Just be mindful not to take on too many activities at once.

14. Take time to reflect

As time goes on, support your child to reflect on what has changed since the bushfire. Pay particular attention to any unexpected positives that have occurred. You don’t need to pretend that there haven’t been great difficulties; but try to focus on any strengths in the community, like how people have come together to help with the recovery efforts. By focusing on any new skills or achievements, you will help your child to feel more hopeful and in control.

15. Plan things that bring joy

We’re all good at something and we all enjoy particular things. Encouraging your child (and yourself) to do things that bring them joy and a sense of accomplishment, and to plan things to look forward to, can really help with their recovery.

16. Don’t put off seeking professional support

As we previously mentioned, with care and support most children will recover from experiencing a bushfire. If your child’s difficulties don’t improve after 1–2 months and/or they appear to be anxious or sad, and this is impacting their daily life, seek professional advice. And remember, all children cope differently with trauma, for a wide range of reasons. There is a real strength in knowing that you or your child need extra support.

In the following video (13 seconds), Strathewen Primary School Principal, Jane Hayward AM reflects on the recovery process.

Where to get support

If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 000.

Healthdirect’s National Health Services Directory can help you to find a GP, counsellor, psychologist or other health professional in your local area.

Lifeline offers free crisis support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can call Lifeline on 13 11 14, text 0477 131 114 or chat with a trained Crisis supporter online.

Suicide Call Back Service provides free 24/7 telephone, online-chat and video counselling to people at risk of suicide, those bereaved by suicide and carers of someone who is suicidal. Call 1300 659 467 or visit the Suicide Call Back Service website.

Kids Helpline offers free 24/7 support for both parents and children. You can call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, chat with a counsellor online, or send Kids Helpline an email.

headspace has a range of free online and phone support services to support young people.

13YARN is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-run crisis service. Their Crisis Supporters are available to yarn whenever you need them (24/7) – just call 13 92 76.

The Raising Children Network has compiled a list of national and state-based parent support helplines and hotlines.

Life in Mind has a bushfire support services card you can download and print.

Useful links for parents

This resource contains content adapted from resources originally co-developed by Emerging Minds and the Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network (ACATLGN) / Australian National University (ANU) as part of the Community Trauma Toolkit. This includes footage from the documentary, Strathewen community: A bushfire recovery story 10 years in the making, which was co-produced by ACATLGN/ANU, Artist Made Productions and Emerging Minds.

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