Looking after your wellbeing following a bushfire

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource explores the importance of parental wellbeing for children’s mental health and recovery following a natural disaster. It offers tips to help you look after your own wellbeing following a bushfire, as well as that of your family. 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.

As a parent, you have an awful lot on your shoulders after experiencing a bushfire. You’re working hard to support your child through the trauma and ensure your family’s basic needs are met, as well as coping with your own feelings of loss and grief. Not to mention the mental challenge of navigating bureaucratic systems and the physically demanding work of cleaning up (and perhaps even starting over).

It can be hard to find hope when you’re moving into a future you didn’t ask for. But the most important thing we can stress here is the need for you to be kind to yourself. Remember, looking after yourself is looking after your child’s mental health and wellbeing. 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 physical and mental wellbeing following a bushfire is an essential part of supporting your child’s recovery. Research shows that couples who’ve experienced natural disasters have a greater likelihood of experiencing family illness, divorce, family violence and substance use issues.1 Your long-term wellbeing is crucial to the family unit, so it’s important to make your physical and mental health a priority.

One thing that can make a big difference is having someone to talk to. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or finding it difficult to manage your everyday tasks, seek advice from your GP or a trusted health professional. They can work with you to figure out what you’re feeling and make a plan to put some extra supports in place. For example, your GP can set you up with a Mental Health Treatment Plan, which gives you subsidised face-to-face or online sessions with a mental health specialist (e.g. psychologist, counsellor). If you find it hard to ask for help when you need it, Beyond Blue has some tips around how to ask for support.

Even as things return to ‘normal’ (or you begin to establish a ‘new normal’), you might continue to feel hopeless, overwhelmed, sad, angry or stressed. You may worry that something is wrong with you, but it’s normal to experience these kinds of overwhelming emotions, along with feelings of grief and loss, following an extreme event like a bushfire. Keep in mind that you’re going through a period of adjustment and do your best to take things one day at a time. Remind yourself that these feelings are a normal response to the intense, unusual and unique circumstances you’ve been (and still are going) through.

It’s important to connect with friends and other family members during this time, or with online communities who have been through the same or a similar event (for example, Facebook groups). They might be experiencing similar feelings, even if they don’t show it.

Your child will need reassurance that they are safe, even if your family did not experience a direct loss during the event. You can provide this through conversations that are calm and supportive, hugs, a consistent household routine, and by encouraging them to play and do calming activities that align with their interests (for example, colouring in, reading or crafts). If you and your family experienced a direct loss during the event, it might take longer for feelings to resolve, and you may need additional support to cope.

In the following video (24 seconds), Rachel (whose family experienced the Strathewen bushfires) shares her advice for other parents who have been through a bushfire.

Common responses among adults who have experienced a bushfire

The following are some common responses among adults who’ve experienced a traumatic event such as a bushfire:

  • Feeling overwhelmed or like you can’t deal with day-to-day tasks.
  • Shock, numbness, confusion or uncertainty.
  • Intense sadness or grief, to the point of physical pain.
  • Constant tiredness or trouble sleeping.
  • No appetite or increased appetite.
  • Feeling detached from the world around you, or like things aren’t real.
  • Feeling like things you used to care about don’t matter anymore.
  • Despair, hopelessness or loneliness.
  • High levels of stress.
  • Anger, irritability or lack of patience.

You might also feel guilty if others around you lost their lives, homes or important belongings. You might feel like you don’t deserve help because other people seem to be struggling more, or you might feel like you have to ‘just get on with things’ because others don’t have time to help. Another common reaction is anger – if, for example, it appears that mistakes were made in the official bushfire response, or that bushfire-affected communities in other districts or states are receiving greater assistance.

But along with these feelings, you may also find within yourself levels of resilience that you never knew you had, and even moments of humour and family togetherness amongst the enormous stress of the fire.

Tips for looking after yourself following a bushfire

There is no right or wrong response to a traumatic event like a bushfire. But if a couple of months pass and you’re still finding things tough, it’s important to seek help – from your GP, a trusted health professional, or one of the services listed in the following section. The following strategies can also help to ‘fill your cup’ and support your wellbeing following a bushfire:

  • Make time to do the things you enjoy. Even just taking a few minutes to listen to a song that always makes you feel better, or 10 minutes to call someone you love, can make a difference. Doing activities you enjoy can lower your stress levels, boost your mood and help you to feel calmer and more capable of supporting the people around you. Planning activities as a family can give everyone something to look forward to and serve as a helpful distraction from the stress and uncertainty that often comes after a bushfire.
  • Focus on healthy habits. Regular exercise, eating well and getting a good night’s sleep are all key to our physical and mental wellbeing. But they’re also usually the first things to fall away during times of stress, especially if we’re focused on taking care of others. If it’s hard to find time to yourself, you could suggest going for a walk or a bike ride together as a family, or ask your children to help you prepare dinners for the week ahead. Giving your children the opportunity to make choices and feel like they’re helping can have a positive impact on their own mental health. And if you’re feeling overwhelmed, remember that even small changes can make a big difference to your energy levels and mood.
  • Try to stick to a daily routine. Predictable routines provide a sense of stability for both children and adults during times of stress. Keeping daily life as ‘normal’ as possible can help everyone in the family to feel more in control, which can in turn help counteract any feelings of overwhelm. As psychologist Dr Jenn Hardy says, ‘the routines you are able to maintain during a crisis are the ropes you will use to pull yourself through, back to yourself.’
  • Talk to someone you trust. While it’s important to set a positive example for your children, it’s impossible to remain strong all the time. The practices listed here can easily fall away during times of prolonged stress, so you may need the support of a trusted friend, family member or health professional to help get you back in the habit. The more you can open up and talk with others, the more difficult emotions will (slowly but surely) fade, leaving room for a more flexible approach to dealing with stress and uncertainty.
  • Acknowledge your feelings. Recognising and labelling your emotions can help them to feel less overwhelming. This is also a great example to set for your children. When you notice something coming up, you could say something like, ‘I’m feeling a bit angry right now, so I’m going to go for a walk to help me calm down.’ These conversations can help children to develop their own strategies for managing difficult emotions.
  • Practice compassionate self-talk. If you find things aren’t going to plan, be kind to yourself. Think about how you might talk to a friend or a loved one in the same situation. Chances are the things you’d say to them are a lot kinder than what you might say to yourself! Look out for any critical thoughts or ‘thinking errors’, such as ‘catastrophising’ (believing something is or will be much worse than it actually is) and ‘fortune telling’ (believing you can predict what’s going to happen in the future). Replace them with compassionate thoughts such as ‘this will take time’ or ‘I’ve tried this before and it helped; we can try again tomorrow’. Also notice if you’re holding yourself to any previous standards – of productivity, parenting, socialising, being – and do your best to let them go. This will make it easier to accept whatever ‘new normal’ you’re experiencing and find ways to adapt.
  • Learn to recognise the signs that you need some extra support. You can use the previous list of common bushfire responses as a starting point, but keep in mind that everyone responds differently to traumatic events and your signs may be more subtle. For example, if you’re usually quite driven and goal-oriented, feeling bored or aimless for multiple days in a row might be a sign that you need some help.

No matter what you did or didn’t experience as a result of the bushfire, your feelings are valid, and you should not feel guilty or ashamed for asking for help. After all, your own wellbeing is key to your child’s mental health and recovery.

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


1. Silverman, W. K., & La Greca, A. M. (2002). Children experiencing disasters: Definitions, reactions, and predictors of outcomes. In A. M. La Greca, M. C. Roberts, E. M. Vernberg, & W. K. Silverman (Eds.), Helping children cope with disasters and terrorism (pp. 11-33). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

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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