Section 1: Supporting families in the aftermath of disaster

Family members influence one another in various ways after disaster, which may result in negative outcomes for the family. However, relationships between individual members of the family also provide multiple opportunities for family members to support and help each other following the disaster event. Families can grow closer and form greater understanding as they come together to get through the experience.

Given the stressors that can occur both during and after a disaster, it is not surprising that on occasion there can be an increase in difficulties, tensions or misunderstandings within family units. Sometimes this is due to family members’ inability to understand the reactions of others, and the requirement to adapt their own behaviour to cope with these reactions. This can be difficult to do, in particular when all members of the family have lived through the same disaster event. As a result, families may well be functioning differently for a time and this can be a time of instability within the family unit. However, for most families, these issues will resolve without intervention. Resolution occurs as family members begin to understand the nature of the difficulties they are facing, mobilise additional coping strategies, access necessary resources and accept that it will take time to recover.

The ability of family members to provide mutual support is a protective factor against the impact of exposure to a disaster. Improved outcomes for families are also associated with the use of family inclusive practices and approaches that emphasise increased family involvement in recovery from a disaster event. For example, there is value in age-appropriate involvement of children in family problem-solving and planning, which can help the family achieve a sense of equilibrium as they move towards a ‘new normal’. Reflecting on disaster stories can also bring families together, and may serve to highlight strengths of individual family members and the family unit as a whole.

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If there is a significant deterioration in the couple relationship

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If a family is unable to enjoy being together, in particular if this represents a change since the disaster

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If a family is experiencing ongoing communication breakdown, and family functioning does not improve over time

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If there is evidence of deteriorating physical, mental or emotional health in a family member, or

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If parents do not understand their children’s behaviour or need assistance in managing that behavior.

Quick tips

Emphasise the importance of relationships

Provide psycho-education about disaster and its impact on individuals and families

Facilitate ongoing communication between family members about how each member is feeling/coping and what they need from each other

Suggest families spending time together as a family and make time for relaxation and enjoyment.

Do you know how to?

Assess the current state of family functioning?

Provide information about family sensitive practice which can be as simple as asking questions about the family and appreciating the family as a system, and an understanding that while families are made up of individuals – changes in one member result in changes in others?

Provide psycho-education on impact of disasters on families including immediate, medium and long term effects?

Encourage families to engage in self-care during and after a traumatic event?

Section 2: Supporting children in the aftermath of disaster

A major disaster event in the life of a child or young person can create a great amount of stress and anxiety, and reactions will vary depending on age, previous experiences and existing stress coping behaviours. Most will return to a pre-disaster level of functioning in the weeks and months after disaster, but a small but significant number will show signs of distress, including the development of frank mental health conditions, for years after a disaster event. The provision of support during the immediate phase of the aftermath can minimise the negative impacts of the disaster, and parents and caregivers can play an essential and important role in a child’s recovery. In particular, it is important to be aware that parental/caregiver functioning will influence the child’s response, such that the emotional wellbeing of parents should be supported as they in turn support their children following disaster.

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If you are concerned about any aspect of a child’s behaviour

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When a child experiences difficulties which are impacting on daily life for longer than 6 weeks after an event

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There is evidence of deteriorating physical, mental or emotional health in a child

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There is evidence of parental/caregiver difficulty in providing support to their children

Quick tips

Provide psycho-education about disaster and its impact on children and teenagers.

Ensure children and young people have access to accurate information about the event and its consequences. Giving facts helps to prevent their imagination taking over (without unnecessary detail)

Offer reassurance about the future including that their current distress will pass in time.

Encourage parents and caregivers to seek their own support for their own well-being and in order that they are better positioned to support their children.

Do you know how to?

Assess the current state of a child’s functioning?

Provide psycho-education on the impacts of disasters on children and young people?

Identify when it may be necessary to refer to general practitioners or mental health specialists?

Support parents to manage their own trauma reactions so they can best support their children?

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