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19 November 2013

Remember children’s emotional needs after natural disasters, says expert.

In the aftermath of natural disasters, children need ongoing support to help protect them from developing serious mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress and depression, according to a clinical psychologist who specialises in post-disaster care for families.

The University of Queensland’s Dr Vanessa Cobham said her work with flood-affected communities in the Australian state of Queensland over the past two years had convinced her government agencies needed to offer ongoing support to families, and particularly children, following a major disaster. 


“After a natural disaster many people experience some anxiety and stress, which is completely normal,” Dr Cobham said.


“Most people haven’t been through an experience like that before, so they don’t know what to expect or what is ‘normal’ in terms of the emotional impact.  Children and adolescents are a particularly vulnerable and often overlooked group.


“Without access to evidence-based professional intervention, about 10 per cent will experience persistent symptoms of post-traumatic stress and other related problems such as depression.’’


Dr Cobham has been Deputy Chair of the Mater Statewide Child and Youth Recovery and Resilience team for Queensland Health since the January 2011 floods in Queensland.  


Dr Cobham and Resilience team Chair Professor Brett McDermott collaborated with Triple P – Positive Parenting Program founder Professor Matt Sanders to create a two-hour Disaster Recovery Triple P parenting seminar to provide emotional support, information and reassurance to parents in disaster-affected communities.


Disaster Recovery Triple P has now been used to help families affected by floods and fires in two countries.


It was first offered to parents in communities throughout Queensland following the 2011 floods. This year, the Alberta government in Canada offered the seminars to Calgary families affected by the devastating June floods. And families in Tasmania, Australia, were offered the seminars following the January bushfire crisis, as part of the beyondblue Child and Adolescent Bushfire Response, which was directed by Dr Cobham.


Dr Cobham said common emotional and behavioral responses in children and adolescents after major disasters included sleep difficulties and nightmares, displaying behavior often expected of younger children, being hyper-alert for signs of danger and feeling anxious, irritable or sad.


The seminar teaches parents strategies to deal with such reactions and covers why some children are more affected than others and what parents should do if they have ongoing concerns about their child’s wellbeing.


Dr Cobham said feedback from more than 200 Queensland parents who attended a seminar had been extremely positive.