In focus: Supporting your child after a flood


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.

If your family has just been through a flood, and maybe not for the first time, you may be worried about the potential mental health impacts on your child or children. If you feel a bit overwhelmed and unsure, you’re not alone. This resource aims to provide advice on how to support yourself and your family during this difficult time.

While children of all ages can be profoundly affected by traumatic experiences such as floods, it’s important to remember that most children will recover with time, care and reassurance.

Children respond to traumatic experiences in different ways, depending on factors like:

  • their age
  • where they’re at in their development
  • their coping skills
  • what they experienced during the flood; and
  • whether they were personally in danger.

Your child might show no signs of trauma initially, but begin to exhibit changes in behaviour down the track. This resource aims to help you understand what to look out for in the weeks, months and years ahead. It provides practical strategies to support your and your family’s wellbeing during this time.

It’s important to remember that caring parents and a stable routine are the two biggest factors in supporting your child through this experience. And you’re the expert – no-one knows your child better than you do. The things that you intuitively feel will often be the most important, like knowing when your child needs an extra cuddle and a chat about how they’re feeling, knowing what might lift their spirits, or knowing when it’s the right time to return to school.

But no-one’s expecting you to be perfect at a time like this, either. You’ve been through a lot, and it’s understandable if your own emotions are making it hard to determine how much your child has been affected by the flood. The same goes for knowing exactly what to do about it. If you’re worried about your child’s behaviour and things don’t settle down in a week or two – or if you’re having trouble coping yourself – seek advice and support from your general practitioner (GP) or health professional.

Learn more about the role of a GP in this video.

Looking after your own physical and mental health right now is not indulgent. It’s absolutely essential to your child’s wellbeing.

As a parent, you have a powerful influence on how your child copes when a flood is experienced within their community.

We all know that when the to-do list gets long, parents put themselves ever further down the list. But it’s important to remember that looking after your own physical and mental health right now is not indulgent. It’s absolutely essential to your child’s wellbeing.

It’s common for adults who’ve been through a traumatic event such as a flood to feel mentally exhausted, frustrated, guilty, resentful, or a sense of having lost control. Compassion fatigue is common too, where you don’t feel like you have the mental capacity to support others because you’re too tired, or you’re struggling yourself.

Ongoing mental distress can lead to physical symptoms such as:

  • feeling exhausted
  • headaches
  • difficulty sleeping or eating
  • stomach aches and bodily pains.

If your physical or mental difficulties persist, seek support from your GP, health professional or one of the helplines listed at the end of this resource. Remember this, as the weeks and months pass, too. You’re not failing anyone by putting up your hand and asking for help. There’s also nothing wrong with stepping back from other work or community responsibilities for a bit, to keep your emotional tank full and focus on your own family unit. If you’re running on empty, you can’t effectively help anyone.

As you navigate your own emotions and experiences following a disaster, it’s important to be aware of how this is perceived by your children. We know that children pick up on their parent’s emotions, even when they’re not spoken about. Common things children might notice is a change in your tone of voice or facial expressions when you’re anxious or angry, and changes in your behaviour, like working longer hours or talking more about finances.

By taking time to focus on your own wellbeing, you will create a supportive environment for your family and provide space to make choices which help your child’s wellbeing following the flood. These might include moving away from your child when talking about finances or finding age-appropriate ways of sharing your emotions.

For more information on supporting your own wellbeing following a flood, please read our fact sheet, Looking after your wellbeing following a flood.

Factual conversations will ensure your child isn’t left to deal with their feelings and worries on their own.

Creating a positive, supportive and caring environment for your child (even if you don’t necessarily feel positive on the inside right now) provides an important foundation for your child’s mental health and wellbeing following a disaster. In the safety of this type of space, children might start noticing different emotions following the event.

Make time to sit down with your child to listen to them as they talk about their feelings and experiences, and to answer any questions they might have. Bearing in mind what’s appropriate for their age and abilities, answer as truthfully as possible (even if that answer is, ‘I don’t have all the answers right now, but as soon as I know, I’ll let you know too.’) In most cases you are the answer, because you are the provider of care and stability.

Factual and caring conversations will ensure your child isn’t left to deal with their feelings and worries on their own. For example, ‘You can’t go back to school this week because the mess from all the water needs to be cleaned up. But we can do some reading at home if you like, and you should be able to go back next week.’

For younger children, talking about the event may be difficult. Providing a variety of play experiences at home – such as drawing, painting, storytelling and pretend play – can help children to communicate thoughts and feelings they may not have the words to express, and to make meaning of the event.

The Queensland Centre for Perinatal and Infant Mental Health has developed a suite of resources about Birdie and Mr Frog: animals who have been through lots of natural disasters, including cyclones, floods, fires and earthquakes. The Birdie’s Tree website includes a set of free stories and games for children, along with information sheets and booklets for parents and hard-copy storybooks.

The Birdie stories explain some of the causes and impacts of natural disasters and offer strategies to help children cope at any stage of a disaster.

Social stories can help children with disability to understand what is going on and what to expect. These stories use a combination of Easy English and pictures to describe a situation, event or activity. Professional Disability Development Supports and Services offers a number of free downloadable resources, including tips and examples of different stories. SCOPE also has some tips for writing a Social Story.

Just as all children have their own personalities, there’s no one-size-fits-all response to an extreme event like a flood. If you’re trying to work out how your child might be affected (again, bearing in mind we all respond differently), some factors to consider include:

  • whether their own life was at risk at any time, or if they thought it was at risk
  • whether someone close to them was in danger, or they thought their life may be at risk
  • whether they were injured or trapped during the flood
  • whether they had to be rescued from the flood
  • whether they lost a family member, friend, pet, precious object or their home
  • any previous experiences of adversity, loss or trauma, including exposure to floods and other disaster events
  • any pre-existing mental health difficulties, such as anxiety or depression
  • whether your child has a disability or is neurodiverse
  • how much media about the flood your child has been exposed to
  • how much support your child receives from friends, family and their school/early learning service (ELS)
  • how you as their parent are coping with the situation, and also how you’re coping as a family unit
  • whether the community is rallying together and being offered support.

It’s important to remember that with time, nurturing, patience and a stable routine, most children and young people will recover following a flood. But some children may find it difficult to tell their parents that they’re struggling emotionally or physically. They may not have the words (or even the awareness) to recognise that they need support.

That’s why it’s important for you to remain curious. This involves looking out for any changes in your child’s emotions and behaviour, as well as talking with them about what they’re feeling and experiencing. Ask direct, open-ended questions – for example, instead of asking ‘Are you OK?’ (which requires a ‘yes’/‘no’ response), try something specific like, ‘Lots of people I chat to are feeling sad or angry at the moment, thinking about the flood. I’m feeling a bit like that myself. How about you? Tell me how you’re feeling.’

You can find more information on common responses among toddlers, school-aged children and teenagers in our series of fact sheets.

It’s not unusual for routines to get turned upside down for a while after a traumatic event like a flood.

As a parent, one of your most important jobs after a flood is to quickly restore your child’s sense of safety. They will need your care, patience and reassurance that they’re OK. Here are five things that can help:

  • Encourage your child to express their thoughts and feelings, and to ask questions. For example, ‘It’s normal to be feeling lots of different things at a time like this. What are you noticing or feeling?’ Accept their feelings and reactions, because we all respond differently.
    Avoid telling them to ‘be good’, to ‘stop being silly’, to ‘be brave’ or that they’re ‘being selfish’. Instead, be curious about what emotion your child is feeling and help them to describe what it feels like in their body. You could say something like, ‘Sometimes when I feel worried, I get a funny feeling in my tummy and my heart feels like it’s racing in my chest. What have you been noticing in your body lately?’
  • Be honest about what’s happening, and what might happen next. Your child will be taking in information and making up their own meanings. They may mistakenly believe that the flood is somehow their fault. Provide them with accurate, age- and ability-appropriate information to dispel rumours they might have heard, or things they might make up. Limit their exposure to potentially distressing media and conversations, and to distressed people.
  • Be aware of the triggers for each family member. That might be hearing the water pump out of a washing machine, a bath or sink being filled, rain, driving past a particular location, hearing stories in the media, or being reminded of a much-loved item that’s been lost. Ask your child how you can help to make it better. They can be very practical at coming up with ideas, and it will give them a sense of control.
  • Similarly, let your child make decisions where it’s appropriate. These can be bigger, more practical decisions – if the flood damaged their room, you could ask them how they’d like to remake it. Or they can be as simple as choosing what to have on their sandwich for lunch. For example, ‘We’re going to take a break this afternoon from cleaning up – do you want to go for a walk or do a drawing together?’
  • Returning to routine is important after a traumatic event like a flood. Although it is common for things to get turned upside down for a while, when the time is right, returning to routine provides an important foundation for a child’s recovery. It’s the return to these roles, rules and rituals that will really help your child to cope and regain a sense of predictability and consistency. The sense of familiarity that routines offer can be helpful for your own mental health and recovery, too.

Our fact sheet offers more information on what to look out for and how to support your child in the weeks after a flood.

As a parent, you’re the expert – no-one knows your child better than you.

Over time, it can become harder to see how any mental health difficulties your child is experiencing could be related to the flood. But sometimes, children who appeared to cope well initially may have problems down the track. It’s also possible for issues to resurface years later, perhaps triggered by the first rainfall after the flood, the anniversary of the event, or some other unrelated trauma or challenging life event.

The key to supporting your child’s ongoing recovery is to stay curious. Try to picture things through your child’s eyes as time goes on. As best you can, create a positive, supportive and caring environment for your child, to help them feel comfortable to connect and talk with you. Keep asking those open-ended questions mentioned earlier, and keep watching for changes in their emotions and behaviour. And if you’re concerned, speak to your GP or health professional.

Remember too that recovery takes time (and sometimes the mental health impacts of traumatic events like floods will take years to surface). Unfortunately, things might never quite get back to how they were, so it can be helpful to aim for a ‘new normal’ instead of striving to return to the past.

Families who’ve been through traumatic events say they restored a sense of normality by doing things like:

  • establishing routines
  • reprinting digital photographs
  • replacing cherished lost items
  • continuing special traditions, such as Sunday nights on the couch for a family movie, or Friday night takeaway fish and chips.

Your child’s education may have been disrupted by the flood, and they may be reluctant to get back to learning. But returning to their school or ELS can be really beneficial for children’s mental health following a traumatic event. It can provide a sense of safety, normalcy and routine – even if the school or ELS looks different or has moved to a temporary location. This sense of structure can be very important after a flood, when a lot of things in your child’s life might seem chaotic or out of control. Seeing their friends, peers and teachers and having other activities to focus on can also help their recovery.

However, some children may find it hard to manage their emotions, concentrate on learning and be away from their family following the flood. They may seem fine at home but show signs that they’re struggling at school, or vice versa. It’s important to keep in touch with your child’s school or ELS, so you can get a full picture of how they’re recovering.

For more information on how to support your child’s recovery after a flood, check out our fact sheet.

Aim for a ‘new normal’ instead of striving to return to the past.

If your child has been through a flood, one way to make them feel safe in the longer term is to show that you’re prepared if it ever happens again. This can be a positive experience even if your family hasn’t been directly affected by a flood.

Involve your child in developing a ‘family emergency plan’ and invite them to share their own ideas around how to prepare for a flood. Children, even younger ones, have creative, resourceful and valuable suggestions for preparing for an emergency. Being involved in the preparedness process can help children to develop their problem-solving skills and give them a sense of control moving forward.

Learn more about helping your child to prepare for a flood in our fact sheet.

As we’ve discussed, the majority of children who experience the trauma of a flood will gradually recover with time, reassurance and patience. However, despite all the care you can provide, some children will still need extra professional support.

There’s a lot of research going into this area of mental health, with many evidence-based techniques available to help children get back on track. In the first instance, the best person to speak with is your GP. They can discuss the different options with you and connect you with specialist help if needed.

Stay curious. Watch out for behaviours that suggest your child isn’t coping and ask them to tell you how they’re feeling.

It’s important not to underestimate the impact anniversaries and reminders (such as the first rainfall after the flood) might have on you and your child. Increased media attention and discussions around ‘marking the event’ can bring up overwhelming feelings that you don’t want to deal with again. These feelings might include sadness at what was lost, anger that it happened, anxiety or fear that it might happen again, or distress at seeing others upset. And these emotions can sometimes be just as strong as they were at the time of the flood, even if a long time has passed.

On a more positive note, anniversaries might not trigger any feelings at all. They can also provide an opportunity for quiet reflection: a time to look back on what happened, what you’ve all achieved since, and what you can look forward to in the future.

It’s important to stay curious and watch out for signs your child isn’t coping, such as different behaviours or learning or physical difficulties. Invite them to tell you how they’re feeling, but don’t push them to talk if they don’t want to. Depending on their age and ability level, you might start a conversation with something like, ‘I’ve been feeling a bit sad lately, remembering what happened during the flood. How about you? Have you been feeling like that at all?’

Our fact sheet offers more information about how to manage traumatic event anniversaries and other triggers.

Lots of families say that after the initial trauma, they become closer and stronger than ever.

If you’re feeling tired, overwhelmed and worried about your child, we want you to know your feelings are completely normal. By simply being a safe, consistent and caring figure in your child’s life, you will be helping them to cope following a flood. In fact, lots of families say that after the initial trauma, they become closer and stronger than ever. They’re required to pull together and focus on what’s most important to them.

Just as children need reassurance that they’re safe, we want to remind you that you’ve been through a lot, but you can get through this. Remember that your own wellbeing is vital, so be kind to yourself, and seek support if you or your child need it.

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 help 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 flood support services card you can download and print.

This resource contains content adapted from resources originally co-developed by Emerging Minds and the Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network/Australian National University as part of the Community Trauma Toolkit.

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