Helping your child to prepare for a bushfire

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource offers tips to help families prepare practically and emotionally for 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.

Working together as a family to prepare both practically and emotionally can improve everyone’s chances of coping and recovering well in the event of a bushfire – especially if you’ve been through a natural disaster before.

A ‘family emergency plan’ will increase your confidence and ability to deal with a bushfire if it happens. It can also help you to think more clearly and maintain a sense of control during the event itself. Remember, one of the best ways to reduce your child’s stress and anxiety before, during or after a bushfire is to actively involve them in any planning, so you can take steps together to manage situations in the best way possible.

Talking to your child about bushfires

Some parents worry that they’ll scare their children if they talk about the potential threat of a bushfire. In fact, talking honestly with your child (in an age-appropriate way) and letting them know that you’re prepared and have a plan, helps them to feel safer and more secure.

Your children may have already been exposed to media coverage or heard conversations about the bushfires. Finding out what they already know will help you to address their specific worries and concerns. These conversations can also help children to deal with the impact of a bushfire if it does happen, and to tell you what is most important to take with them should you have to evacuate.

As part of these conversations, it’s important to talk about what you’ll do if you’re not all together at the time of the bushfire. This can be a huge worry for both children and parents who’ve been through a disaster before.

  • Contact your workplace and your child’s school/early learning service to find out what their emergency plan is and run through it with your child.
  • Discuss how you’ll stay in touch with your child if you’re separated.
  • Prepare your child for circumstances when communication may be cut off – for example, cell towers and power lines going down.
  • Reassure your child that if you are separated, you’ll try to get to them as soon as you physically can, and that the adults they’re with at the time – whether it’s their educators, family members or their friend’s parents – will keep them safe.

If you’re a first responder:

  • Talk with your child about the role you might play in an emergency.
  • Give them age-appropriate information about who is going to be available to take care of them in your absence, and where they will be taken care of.
  • Take the time to answer any questions they may have and reassure them that you’re trained to respond to these situations.
    For more tips, see Emerging Minds’ Guide for first responders: Supporting child and family preparedness for disaster.

Preparing a family emergency plan

The following tips are useful to keep in mind when preparing a family emergency plan:

  • Keep your emergency contacts somewhere that is easy to find and accessible for your child. For example, instead of just keeping your contacts in your phone, print a copy of them and put it on the fridge where your child can easily see and reach it.
  • Know where, how and when to get help.
  • Know where you can get up-to-date, reliable information about the bushfire so you can gather facts and access critical warnings and actions to take.
  • Work with your child to identify their role within your plan (suitable for their age and development). Allowing your child to contribute to the family’s safety, rather than having to sit back and watch the bushfire unfold, can help them to feel calmer and more in control during an emergency.
  • Pack a ‘grab bag’ for each child, filled with any essential items (such as clothing, bottles, formula, blankets), things they enjoy (maybe a small colouring-in book or game), and objects or toys that mean a lot to them. Involve your children in the process so that their favourite items are included. Something that doesn’t seem important to you could be very important to your child, and children often grieve the loss of their favourite items following a disaster.
  • Ahead of time, gather the things together that you might need to take quickly – for example, passports, money, credit cards, important contacts, medicines, photographs and your ‘grab bags’.
  • Sit down with all members of the household, including young children, and discuss your family emergency plan – for example, when you might leave in the event of a bushfire, and where you might go. This includes what you will do if you’re separated at the time of the event – for example, if you’re at work and/or your child is at school.
  • Discuss your emergency plan regularly and keep it somewhere everyone can see it.

Planning to leave early

The official advice is for families living in areas of bushfire risk to leave early on days of extreme fire danger. But we all know bushfires can be unpredictable, and sometimes flare up with little warning. Leaving early keeps the family together under less stressful conditions, and reassures your child that you are all safe.

If your plan is to stay and defend your property, it’s recommended that your child is removed from the danger well ahead of time. Protecting them from the traumatic experience of seeing their home in danger will lessen the likelihood of long-term harm to their mental health. If you do send your child away while you stay and defend your property, it’s best to ensure they’re with a trusted friend or family member who makes them feel safe. It’s also vital that you stay in regular communication, so your child knows that you’re safe.

It’s also important to think about what you will do if your child is on their way to or from school/day care when it comes time to evacuate. Talk with your child’s educators about your family’s plan and the school’s plan, and what you would like to happen on high fire danger days.

Emotional preparation

It’s impossible to fully prepare for the emotional challenges of experiencing a bushfire. But thinking about the following points now may make things a bit easier if a bushfire does happen:

  • Understand the risks of a bushfire occurring in your area and work out some simple steps to follow if one does happen.
  • Do your best to prepare yourself psychologically and emotionally using the advice in this fact sheet, so you can feel more in control and know what to expect during a bushfire. This includes sensory experiences you might not normally think about, like the sounds of the fire or the smell of the smoke.
  • Know that feeling worried and stressed is normal. You can manage the stress and fear by learning how to identify your feelings, bodily responses – for example, shortness of breath or tightness in the chest – and thoughts, and by having coping statements such as, ‘I can cope with this, we have a plan and we know what to do.’
  • Learn breathing exercises to slow down your breathing and help you to keep calm during an emergency. The Smiling Mind app is free to download and offers a range of breathing, mindfulness and meditation exercises for both adults and children.
  • Help your child to identify and label their feelings. Teach them how to slow their breathing to help them calm down and manage any panic and overwhelming feelings. For example, the Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network suggests telling your child to ‘imagine you’re breathing out like a sleepy dog lying in the sun’. When breathing out slowly, teach your child to say to themselves, ‘It’s OK, breathe easy’. This is great advice for teaching children how to calm themselves, regardless of the situation.
  • Listen to your child’s concerns and correct any false ideas they might have. For example, they might be worried that you have no way of escaping if a bushfire is approaching, or that you’ll have to leave the family pets behind if you have to evacuate. Explain in simple terms how you are managing the situation and how it relates back to your family’s emergency plan – for example, your planned routes for evacuation and/or plans to leave early, and who is responsible for each pet if you have to leave quickly.
  • Invite your child to share their own ideas around how to prepare for a bushfire. This can be an opportunity for them to develop their problem-solving skills and to feel like they’re helping. Children, even younger ones, have creative, resourceful and valuable suggestions for preparing for an emergency. They may also be able to share learnings from school or other community-based activities they’re involved in.

Tips for talking with your child about the possibility of a bushfire

Talking openly and honestly with your child about the potential of bushfires and the plans you have in place can help them to feel safer and better able to cope. These conversations can be daunting, but keeping the following tips in mind may help:

  • Tell your child that bushfires sometimes happen, and if you as a family all know what to do and when to do it, it will help keep everyone safe. For example, you could say something like, ‘Bushfires are scary, but we know what to do’.
  • Remember to stay calm and speak with confidence when discussing the family emergency plan, as this will help reduce your child’s worries. Don’t catastrophise or over-dramatise the situation.
  • Talk with your child about what they might see on the news or social media, and what they can do if they’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed by what they’re hearing – for example, taking a break from their devices.
  • Allow your child to ask any questions or make comments. This will help you to understand what needs clarification and dispel any misconceptions they might have. Let them know that you’ll do your best to answer all their questions, but that you might not always have the answers.
  • Assure your child that things will be less scary and a lot safer because you’re prepared. For example, you might say something like, ‘We have a plan and we’ve practised it, so that will help us stay safe.’
  • It’s normal for some children to ask to go over the ideas more than once, depending on their age. Follow their lead, let them talk or ask more questions, and check in if they’re worried about something happening soon.
  • If your child is worried, let them know that’s normal. Acknowledge their feelings, but let them know that you’re not worried about anything happening yourself and that your planning will help if it does. Children will follow your lead on this.
  • Encourage your child to get involved with bushfire preparedness activities at their school or early learning service, or in their local community. The Our World, Our Say report found that young people in Australia (aged 10–24 years) explicitly want to know how to plan, prepare and protect themselves and their communities from disaster.1 Taking part in preparedness activities can help children to learn and develop new knowledge and skills, and give them a sense of agency and purpose.

Don’t forget the pets

Pets are members of your family too, so remember to have a think about what you’ll do with them in the event of a bushfire. Again, if your child knows how their much-loved pets will be looked after and kept safe in the event of a bushfire, it will help them to feel reassured and in control too.

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 general practitioner (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.

The 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

1. Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience and World Vision Australia. (2020). Our World Our Say: National survey of children and young people on climate change and disaster risk.

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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