Close Search
Opinion  |  Social IssuesYouth

Australia needs a plan to combat the effects of emergencies on children

18 January 2023 at 10:00 am
Deb Tsorbaris
Australia needs a fit-for-purpose framework to address the effect of emergencies and disasters on children, argues Deb Tsorbaris.   

Deb Tsorbaris | 18 January 2023 at 10:00 am


Australia needs a plan to combat the effects of emergencies on children
18 January 2023 at 10:00 am

Australia needs a fit-for-purpose framework to address the effect of emergencies and disasters on children, argues Deb Tsorbaris.   

The past few years have given each of us a visceral taste of the impact that crises can have on our daily lives. 

Record-breaking bushfires, storms and flooding have ravaged much of Australia, damaging homes, destroying infrastructure and disrupting lives and livelihoods, leaving many communities reeling. And for the first time in living memory, a global pandemic has directly impacted citizens from all corners of the world, killing millions of people worldwide, and compelling governments in Australia to impose restrictions on our daily lives that we could never have imagined possible before COVID-19. 

Much of the focus around emergency responses has rightly been on the immediate aftermath so that people can be safe and have their basic needs met. In the intermediate to long-term, the focus has been more on recovery and the urgency of rebuilding communities and the economy. Yet there has been a remarkable absence of targeted intervention to support child victims of emergencies to cope with the trauma of their experiences.

Children and young people are often passive subjects of situations out of their control. Powerless to act, and excluded from meaningful decision-making, children who experience emergencies in their formative years may struggle to cope in the absence of dedicated interventions to support them. 

Research shows children and young people are particularly vulnerable to the effects of emergency-related trauma, evident for example in the causal relationship between emergencies and mental health problems in children. Although most children are resilient, some continue to experience post-traumatic stress after the emergency has passed, with long-term implications for their development. 

Children with disability are particularly at risk of trauma in times of crisis. During the pandemic, when opportunities for social interactions and face-to-face assisted learning were significantly reduced, studies found that children with disability struggled disproportionately to continue their social development and maximise their learning potential in comparison to their peers. 

The knock-on effects of emergencies on children are far-reaching. For example, the pandemic saw a huge increase in the number of children refusing to go to school, a phenomenon which has lingered long past the end of lockdowns and restrictions. There is also mounting evidence to suggest that emergencies and crises increase the incidence of family violence. 

Given the disproportionate impact of emergencies on children, paired with the increasing frequency and intensity of crises, the development and implementation of a child-centred strategy for trauma-informed crisis management is long overdue.

Schools play an essential role in supporting children through recovery during or after an emergency, providing a safe space for connection, routine and care. School-based social and emotional learning programs have shown success in developing resilience and connectedness in school children, and in reducing the incidence of emergency-induced mental health issues such as PTSD, depression and anxiety. These programs should be standardised and scaled up.

As emergencies become more common, the number of child psychologists and paediatricians must increase in line with demand. This is particularly important in regional and remote areas, which are more likely to experience natural disasters or emergencies, and typically have a smaller pool of specialists to attend to the needs of local children. 

There have been many inspiring examples of teachers, parents, carers and families finding their own creative ways of keeping children safe and reassured in emergency situations, but greater support is needed to educate caregivers on helping children and young people through emergency-related trauma. 

Currently, there is no agreed state-wide or national guidance on how to support children in emergency situations. We need a fit-for-purpose framework that takes into account the unpredictable nature of emergencies and disasters and puts the needs of children at the heart of its response.  

The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2021-2031 was a good first step towards protecting Australian children but does not address the rising incidence of emergencies and crises affecting them. Any framework should include a strategy and guidance for equipping children and caregivers with coping techniques that can be applied in emergency situations, and a system to identify and refer particularly vulnerable children who are struggling in times of crisis. 

We know that a warmer world increases the likelihood of extreme weather events, and that our current systems and infrastructure are not adequately prepared. Children and young people experience the world in different ways from adults and are less equipped to manage and overcome trauma. It is our duty as a community to protect them in times of crisis and to support them through their immediate and long-term recovery.

Deb Tsorbaris  |  @ProBonoNews

Deb Tsorbaris is the CEO of the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, the peak body for child and family services in Victoria.


Get more stories like this



Rallying the young to rise up

Ruby Kraner-Tucci

Thursday, 16th February 2023 at 3:16 pm

Choosing change

Deb Tsorbaris

Monday, 13th February 2023 at 4:06 pm

New Early Years Strategy to include sector’s experiences

Ruby Kraner-Tucci

Tuesday, 7th February 2023 at 4:37 pm

Philanthropy take note, the next youthquake is coming

Ed Krutsch

Wednesday, 7th December 2022 at 7:11 pm

pba inverse logo
Subscribe Twitter Facebook