Helping your teen deal with the emotional impact of the bushfires

Back of womans head staring into landscape

This article was produced with our friends at headspace, see more of their bushfire resources here.

No two people will experience or respond to a natural disaster in the same way. Life changes for everyone during and after a natural disaster, even if we haven’t been directly present at the event.

There is no right or wrong way to react to a traumatic event. Some people might experience sadness, and seek connection to others, and other people 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. Below, we will look at some common reactions and behaviours and how you can help your teen process those emotions.

Common reactions and behaviours in your teen

Grief and loss

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.

What helps: Sit with them and ask them to name their experiences (e.g. ‘I feel sad that I’ve lost our home’). Giving them words to describe their feelings may be helpful.

Confusion, guilt and shame

Trying to understand a natural disaster can be confusing, especially for young people. This may make them feel angry 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.

What helps: Let them know you are there for them when they want to talk, while giving them some space. If they don’t want to share with you, suggest other supports such as another family member or friend or a mental health professional.

Fear, anxiety and insecurity

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.

What helps: Helping your teen to maintain a routine can help establish a sense of stability.

Reactions to trauma

Your teen 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. Your teen 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. We have some more information on dealing with trauma here.

Take care of yourself

You may find yourself juggling your own reactions to how your teen is dealing with the disaster. 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 teen

  • negativity about the world in general, which you may not be able to hide from your teen

  • impatience and frustration about your teen making a slow recovery. 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 teen may help encourage them to do them too.

When to get help

You should think about getting help if your teen is having difficulties more than about six weeks after the disaster, or is not functioning well in normal activities. Services such as your local GP, community health centres, school counsellor or local mental health service can provide advice and assistance.

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