Supporting family and child mental health in the face of severe weather events and disasters

Content type
Event date

28 February 2024, 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm (AEST)


Bron Sparkes, Andrea Baldwin, Sarah Eagland, Ben Rogers




About this webinar

This webinar was held on Wednesday, 28 February 2024.

The number of severe weather events and disasters has increased significantly in recent decades. These events are lasting longer and having a greater impact with many families experiencing multiple disasters one after the other or even at the same time.

With a growing number of Australians faced with disasters, there is also growing awareness that these events significantly impact the emotional wellbeing of infants and children. However, there has been little exploration of how family structures and dynamics affect children’s recovery from these events.

In the face of extreme weather events and disasters, parents and caregivers can play a major role in keeping infants and children physically safe and emotionally well. But these events affect every member of the family, and the family unit as a whole. Caring for infant and child mental health requires effective support for families.

Some parents and caregivers say going through these events has brought the family closer together and strengthened their relationships. At the same time, this journey can be extremely challenging. Recovery can bring grief, anger and worry for parents and children. Often families must relocate or rebuild, change social circles, navigate multiple services and manage financial stressors, all of which can put further strain on family relationships. Research shows that families who’ve gone through a disaster are more likely to experience parental separation, family violence and substance misuse, which can further impact child wellbeing.

This webinar explored the complex interplay of factors that can support or disrupt the wellbeing of whole families following a severe weather event or disaster, and how these factors in turn affect infant and child mental health. From practice and lived-experience perspectives, the panellists discussed evidence-informed approaches of how best to support children and families in the weeks, months and years following these events.

This webinar will help you:

  • recognise the factors that affect the mental health and emotional wellbeing of infants, children and families following a disaster
  • understand the role of the family unit in supporting the recovery of infants and children after a disaster
  • develop awareness of family-focused approaches – including practices within the education context – that can support infants, children, parents, caregivers and the whole family unit after a disaster.

This webinar will interest practitioners working in health, social and community services who have contact with children and families who have experienced severe weather events or a disaster or may experience one in the future.

This webinar was co-produced by CFCA and Emerging Minds in a series focusing on children’s mental health. They are working together as part of the Emerging Minds: National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health, which is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care under the National Support for Child and Youth Mental Health Program.

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We encourage you to test your system before the webinar, and read our Frequently Asked Questions. A recording of this presentation will be made available shortly after the broadcast.

Audio transcript (edited)

BEN ROGERS: Good afternoon everyone and welcome to today’s webinar supporting family and child mental health in the face of severe weather events and disasters. Co-produced by the Australian Institute of Family Studies and Emerging Minds. You’ll get to meet these wonderful panellists in a moment, but some housekeeping to start. I wanted to introduce myself. My name is Ben Rogers and I manage the families education and disaster work here at Emerging Minds as part of our lead role as the national workforce centre for child mental health. Wanted to start by recognising and paying my respect to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the traditional custodians of the land that we work, play, walk on throughout this country, and acknowledge and respect the traditional connections of land, water, culture, spirituality, family and community for the wellbeing of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

I have the beautiful moment in my day where I go past the River Torrens, in the lands of the Kaurna people and just wanted to pay my respect to the Kaurna people today. We can’t see everyone in the audience, but we welcome you and we’re excited to share this conversation with you today. This is a conversation that myself and the panellists have been having for about 12 months now. It started off as a passing conversation at a conference and has really grown over time. In fact, this conversation, every time we talk and the panellists can connect with this, new things come up. We wanted to share this with you and also welcome you to reflect on your own questions that we can feed into the topic today.

The webinar itself will look at the complex and interplay of factors that support and disrupt the wellbeing of whole families. Thinking about severe weather events or disasters, how interplays in impacting infant and child mental health. From practice and lived experience perspectives, the panellists will look at evidence informed approaches and the best ways of supporting children, families in the weeks, months and years that follow these events. Anymore info you can see. There’s some info posted through around the learning objectives and more panel information as well. As I mentioned, we want to make this really collaborative with you as the audience. You’ll be able to submit questions through the Go To webinar dashboard. If you find the questions tab, have a click, put anything down.

I’ve got them popping up on my screen. I’ll integrate them into the conversation today. Likewise, as a professional, you’re naturally wanting resources to help you with your work. We’ve tailored a resource pack that you can access on the Go To webinar dashboard on the hand outs tab. Also remember that the webinar itself is recorded. You’ll be able to access this in a couple of weeks. Ace will have that on the website for you. Probably the last thing to mention is to help us learn and reflect both Ace and Emerging Minds, there’ll be a short survey that will pop up once you leave the webinar today. If you can add some thoughts and reflections in there. The panel, myself and the AIFS team were talking about the start of this webinar today. There’s a lot happening across the country at the moment in terms of disasters.

We really wanted to begin our discussion today to recognise that, acknowledge in our thoughts with the families and communities impacted by disasters across the country. In the light of this, it’s really important that you as a participant today look after yourselves. Our panellists will be looking at sharing their different experiences on this complex topic. Tune into yourself. Take breaks. We’re recording the webinar, so that gives you some flexibility to come back to it at a later date if you need to as well. The AIFS team will also be posting some information in the chat to either read more about your own wellbeing and mental health, and further information around contact information. I’ve got through that unscathed, which is great. Now, the part you’ve been waiting for is to meet our wonderful panellists who have been waiting patiently on the screen. I wanted to introduce today’s panellists Bron Sparkes, Andrea Baldwin and Sarah Eagland. Welcome guys.


BEN ROGERS: I think it’d be nice for the audience to get to know you a little bit at the start before we dive in. We might start with you, Bron. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience of supporting your family following the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009?

BRON SPARKES: No worries. Thanks so much, Ben. Welcome to all of the people that have taken the time to join us on this webinar today. I’m joining you from Ngunnawal and Ngambri country. I want to firstly, acknowledge the communities, particularly those in Victoria around Ballarat who are going to potentially be at day one of their recovery journey with these fires that are burning out of control in that region at the moment. My heart goes out to them at the moment. Particularly because I know what it’s been like in terms of my journey. I will go into my experience of supporting my family after Black Saturday in 2009 in a little bit more detail shortly. In summary, I guess my experience has been an incredible journey of resilience, of grief, trauma and loss. Reflecting back, it has not been a smooth journey. As the children who were two and four at the time, grew and matured into the young adults that they are today, there have been different challenges that have cropped up along the way and it’s been interesting trying to rise to those challenges. In a few words, it’s been really tough but we are still here today and I look forward to sharing my story later. Thanks, Ben.

BEN ROGERS: Thank you, Bron. For the participants today, Bron will be sharing her story in just a moment, but thank you, Bron. Andrea, also someone that’s worked in this space as a psychologist and service development leader at the Queensland Centre for perinatal infant mental health. Just curious, what’s captured your interest in this space?

DR ANDREA BALDWIN: Thanks, Ben. Yeah, I’m joining today from the beautiful country of the Turrbal and Yugara people here in Meanjin, Brisbane in Queensland. I guess, as a psychologist, I’ve always worked with infants, children and young people and my interest is in how do we support children to learn and grow and develop to lead happy and healthy lives. There are lots of interactive factors in that trajectory. Brain development in the first 2,000 years from conception to around about age five is really foundational in that journey. As professionals, we need to support that in every way that we can.

I’m also a country Queenslander so I’ve grown up with natural disasters but I guess it was only – like many people, it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve really been able to understand how natural disasters can disrupt little ones, their emotional wellbeing, their family relationships, their sense of safety and confidence, all of which are absolutely essential to healthy development. Disaster resilience for babies, children and young people, and the adults who care for them is an area where I as a creative practitioner who was in the arts as well as psychology. My team and I can really make a difference.

BEN ROGERS: Yeah, thanks, Andrea. I’m really excited to hear about that and some of the Birdie’s Tree initiatives you’ve been leading with your team today. Sarah. Sarah, we worked together for years. I know that you lead a multidisciplinary team at Royal Fire West that supports bushfire and flood impacted communities across the country. What’s important to you when working with children and families?

SARAH EAGLAND: Thanks, Ben. Over the past four years, I’ve been part of a specialist, multidisciplinary team. We’ve been focused on providing support to children and families in over 80 flood and bushfire impacted communities. It was interesting to count it up yesterday, actually. Within this work, I’ve come to realise that there are many myths and misunderstandings about the needs of children who experience disaster. We’ve learnt how important it is to listen and to take the time to properly understand both strengths and needs, and then be flexible in the support we offer. Another thing that’s been so important for us is connection. I mean that both within the communities but also across services. Opportunities like today to share experiences and learn from each other are really helpful for me.

BEN ROGERS: Thanks, Sarah, Bron and Andrea. Please, the crowd, you won’t hear this, panellists, but we’re all going to give you a big virtual welcome today. In advance, thank you for creating space to talk about this topic. When we were planning this conversation today, what we thought we would do is lead off with a series of images from each of the panellists where they’ll share about their own reflections and experiences. What we hope this will do is provide a really great foundation for us to then open into some Q&A. Quite a spacious Q&A in the back half of today. We really look forward to diving into this with your questions as the audience, so please send those through throughout. Bron, I’ll hand it over to you now. Please, take your time to share your experience. Yeah, thank you so much.

BRON SPARKES: No worries. Thank you so much, Ben. Here’s a little bit about my story. Our life before the seventh, February, 2009 was really simple. My husband, Shane, and our two children, Dom who was two and Lola who was four, we lived in the mountains behind Melbourne in our little gingerbread house, which you should be able to see in the screen there. We were happy, we were playful and we felt safe. The children had all the curiosity and innocence that little children at that age have. Of course, there were the ups and downs that every young family experiences day-to-day. On Saturday the seventh, February, 2009, this simple life was violently taken from us. Firstly, we never intended to be on a mountain in a bushfire, but as things turned out, we were trapped on the mountain and we had to make do with the resources that we had available at the time.

I also want to make it really clear that what I’m sharing with you today are some small insights from my family’s unique experience. I really want to acknowledge that families are going to have different experiences and that they’re going to be impacted by disasters in different ways, and that each experience is relative to that family and its own context. Back to what happened to us on the day, when it was clear that the fire was heading straight for us, I gathering Dom and Lola under my arms and I said to them, “Hey, we’re going to play and get tents with their woollen baby blanket.” I wanted to prepare them as much as possible for what was going to happen to us, so I explained to them that it was going to be really noisy soon and that it was going to be really scary but they needed to stay under the blanket with me.

When the fire hit the house, it was like a bomb had hit us. There was so much sensory violence that occurred all at once and it didn’t stop. The roar of the fire front and the vision of seeing angry, red flames that were licking the interior walls of our home while we were in it was absolutely terrifying. I held my two children in my arms, keeping them under the woollen blanket so that they could breathe clean air, and I sang nursery rhymes to them. I wanted to do everything I could to give them my calm and reassuring mother’s voice. Afterwards, people would often say to me, “You’re so lucky. The children were so young. They won’t remember. They’ll be fine.” Well, this is not the case. While they weren’t able to piece together a narrative about what had happened to them because they didn’t have the language to do that.

Their sensory memories were and remain extremely strong. To give you an example, and it’s kind of funny, but about six to nine months after the fires, little Dom was at a wave pool and he ducked his head under the water where there was some jets. He jumped up and he’s like, “That sounds just like being in the bushfire!” Same and I did the same, and it was like, “Oh my goodness, this is the exact same sensory sounds that we heard on that day.” There was a definitive moment when we were inside the burning house that I accepted our fate and I froze. The fire front was still raging outside of our home and our home was burning from the inside, and we were in it. For me, death for us, was certain. At that point, as a mother, the fight to protect and save my children was over and my maternal attachment to them broke.

It was at that point that Shane took Dom from underneath me and managed to get out of the house through a window. He then realised that Lola and I had remained behind, inside the house. We were frozen in fear and we were waiting to die. Thankfully, Shane came back to the house. He had to make an impossible decision to leave Dom alone between the water tanks with fires raging around us, and come back to the house to rouse me into action, which he did. I wrestled with the blanket and I tried to keep it over Lola’s head so that she could breathe. Thus, I took a couple of breaths of toxic smoke, which hit be really hard and I know that I wouldn’t survive if I did that again. Then I recalled the airline safety briefings that we all pretend to listen to regarding oxygen masks. Look after yourself so that you can look after your child.

This was a mantra that many therapists repeated to me over the years, and I found it really hard to adopt. A question for you in the audience is how can we best support and enable parents and caregivers to prioritise themselves after a disaster so that they can be present for their children to ensure that their needs are met? Back to the house, I took the blanket from Lola and put it over myself and carried her over to Shane who was waiting at the window for us to climb out. Once we’d all escaped the burning house, the four of us took shelter between the two water tanks. This photo shows what was left of our home and how close we were to it when we were between the tanks. When we got off the mountain later that night – change slide please. We drove straight to a friend’s house, to a home that our children trusted and new well.

This photo was taken of Dom that night, with Shane, and it captures the essence of a little boy whose entire sense of safety and innocence in the world had been completely obliterated. For years, Dom would not let either Shane or I, out of his sight. Childcare was impossible for him for a long time. Whereas, Lola craved the predictable routine of kindergarten and school. For me, both of my children reacted very differently in the days, months and years afterwards, and have had their own ways of trying to feel safe. It was really difficult for them to learn to self-regulate. It was also really hard as a parent who was equally traumatised to help the children come down from a dysregulated state or to avoid the triggers that caused it. We lived on our block in a caravan for about two and a half years while we rebuilt.

It was a pressure cooker of trauma, hyper-arousal and stress. It was almost like the four of us living in this confined space was a constant trigger of what had happened to us that day. As a mother, I had no frame of reference for how to manage in the moment or how to come back from an experience like the one we’d had. How do I rebuild a home? How do I hold a safe and gentle enough space for my children to support their recovery when I too was not coping. The suggestions from therapists given to Shane and I to try and create and hold these safe spaces for the children were really difficult for us to put into practice. Our environment, which was the caravan, did not provide appropriate spaces that we could help our children learn to self-regulate in.

Again, a message to the audience is if you’re supporting families like mine, please remember we are most likely living in extra, extraordinary conditions. Some of the therapeutic interventions that might work in a three-bedroom house, might have to be moderated. While each of us in our family experienced an injury, my family was also injured. Our whole family dynamic had gone from a place of play, safety and trust, to one where no one felt safe. Over the years, I found it really difficult to articulate to mental health practitioners that family should be considered as another person or entity who needs to be supported in a way that’s different to how you might work solely with the individual or parents or the children. I’d like you to reflect on this and how it might apply in your work with families who might’ve been through a disaster.

After rebuilding, we moved to Canberra in 2013. We thought that a new environment would give us an opportunity to heal. However, moving away from ground zero, unfortunately removed our access to true understanding, to support, and it actually added new stresses. It resulted in a disconnection from the strong formal and informal supports we had within our disaster impacted community and the school that the children went to. I think this is a really important point, as many families will relocate to other regions after a disaster. How can we provide better continuity of support and understanding of the needs of children, young people and families who are increasingly being exposed to disasters, and choose to relocate to other parts of the country.

I’ve shared some of my story with you so that you can gain a small appreciation of infants and young people and their families have been exposed to on the worst day of their lives, and some of its impacts which can be ongoing. Families in my position have no frame of reference for how to recover from a severe disaster, how to restore safety and trust and calm for our children, ourselves and our family. My last picture is one that represents hope, which I strongly held onto since the seventh February, 2009. This is us on the 15-year anniversary of Black Saturday, this year. It gives me hope which Nick Cave aptly describes as optimism with a broken heart but one day, we the Sparkes family, will be at peace with what happened to us. Thank you for letting me share my story. I’m looking forward to the discussion that follows, and I would now like to hand to Andrea who will talk about the impact of disasters on infants and families. Thank you.

DR ANDREA BALDWIN: Thank you so much, Bron, for sharing your story. Every time I hear it, I’m very moved and thank you for making real points that we want to make that might seem otherwise theoretical, that actually are true to life. As Bron’s just referred to, it’s really common for adults to assume that babies and young children are not actually affected by natural disasters. We hear people say things like, “They don’t really know what’s happening. They’ll be fine so long as they’re with their parents and they’re physically safe. They won’t remember it.” Next slide, please. Conception to age five, the first 2,000 days of life is a critical period for brain development. The brain is making over a million connections per second at this time. It’s establishing the architecture for lifelong health and wellbeing, development and learning.

Now, serious disruptional stress at this period might not be avoidable sometimes but we have to take it seriously. Natural disasters can be highly stressful, obviously, as we’ve heard from Bron’s stories. The fact that babies and very young children are struggling cognitively to understand or process what’s going on means that they’re more rather than less vulnerable to emotional impact. They’re trying to make sense of the sensory experiences like smelling smoke, seeing flood swell of debris, hearing wind and thunder, being carried at a run, the emotions of the adults around them, the disruption to everything that’s familiar and their surroundings and their routine. They’ll pull together the bits they do understand from adult conversations, from the media, etcetera.

The things they’re experiencing, stories they’ve heard, and then they’ll fill in the gap from their imagination and they can make the situation actually bigger and scarier than it is in real life. The result could be that they feel completely overwhelmed or that their understanding just might be more than they can cope with. Whereas, an adult point of view, we would be able to make sense of it. We tend to underestimate that mental work that they’re doing. Their receptive language develops ahead of their expressive language. Young children have a lot more thoughts than they can clearly articulate. It’s important for us as adults to help them to put words to their feelings, to use narrative, to give form to their experiences and find ways to help them feel safe and connected.

While they might not consciously remember the stress from an event afterwards, Bessel van der Kolk says, “The body keeps the score.” Early childhood trauma is known to affect the brain in long lasting ways. Things like the amygdala becoming larger, being more sensitive, more easily triggered. The sympathetic nervous system being harder to soothe. Next slide, please. There hasn’t been enough research done yet on how natural disaster affect babies, young children and families, but we can draw on what we know and we can keep building the evidence base. We do know there’s a certain five principles that help support people of all ages through potentially traumatic experiences. These can be summarised as: safety, connection, calm, agency and hope. We’ll be coming back to those principles throughout the webinar.

Next slide, please. An important thing to remember that Bron has highlighted is that parents, caregivers and other adults in the community are also affected by the disaster as is the family unit. Sometimes, when children need them the most, that’s when adults may not have the emotional resources that they would normally have and the skills and abilities at their fingertips to meet those needs and that’s why we need to building the resilience of children and families in the preparedness phase of a natural disaster, and not just focusing on response when something’s happened and recovery in the short and long term. Next slide, please. We also need a wholistic view of the systems around the child.

Anything we can do to support the resilience of the child, ripples out through their family and their early learning centre and their school, their church, their cultural group, all of the community and the systems that they’re part of. Anything we do to support the resilience of the systems ripples in to help support the child. We need to be thinking about the wellbeing of educators and teachers too, for example. Next slide, please. The Birdie’s Tree team devised to set key messages for babies, young children and the adults who care for them, and all the Birdie’s Tree resources aim to embody these messages in everyday interactions to support mental health and emotional wellbeing of babies, young children and families. Next slide, please. We’re going to talk now with Sarah, or Sarah’s going to talk with us about the experience of her teams in supporting babies, young children and families through natural disasters.

SARAH EAGLAND: Thanks, Andrea. Thousands of children and families were impacted by the 2019, 2020 bushfires but there were really very few services dedicated to supporting their recovery. As Andrea’s highlighted, there’s several myths that contributed to children’s needs being dismissed or overlooked. One is that children are too young to be affected. If they do show difficulties they’ll grow out of it, or their natural resilience will allow them to bounce back unaffected. Another damaging myth is that disasters are equal opportunity events, so children will have identical recovery needs. The evidence is very clear that experiencing a disaster can have a devasting impact on a child’s emotional wellbeing, development and also put at risk the most basic of children’s rights, to life, health, education, play, decent living conditions.

The most impacted are often those with preexisting disadvantage and they also have the least resources to recover. Of course, the children living in rural Australia are often disproportionately impacted. As a charity that supports children’s health and wellbeing in country areas, we were seeing the devastating impact of the bushfires and we really want to do more. Thankfully, our partnership with UNICEF Australia allowed us to develop a brand-new program to meet the gap and support the children under 12 and their families. One of our first challenges was that because children’s needs have been dismissed or overlooked for so long, there was very little evidence to guide how best to help them. Often, we heard that when support had been offered in the past it was miniature version of adult support.

For example, individual counselling, one-to-one offered for a fixed time and only available immediately after the disaster. Then, there’d be very low take up, so it was assumed that there was no need. What was helpful for us was taking time to listen and understand the need, and at the same time of course recognise existing strengths. We completed a literature review of available evidence and connected with others with experience in Australia, such as Andrea, and also worldwide. It was also helpful to remember the existing skills and experience within the team that could be useful in this situation. Whilst, at the same time, upskilling with key training and resources. Many of those were free and easily accessible, like the Emerging Minds community trauma toolkit, which we found invaluable.

Of the many resources I read, there was one particular article that was incredibly helpful and this was used to guide the design and delivery of the program. Back in 2007, it’s hard to believe but there was actually no consensus on what could help after experiencing a mass trauma event. An American professor, Stevan Hobfoll brought together the worldwide panel of experts. They could review the evidence that did exist and agree just five essential elements for intervention. After much deliberation, the group concluded that these are promoting sense of safety, calming, sense of self and community efficacy, connectedness and hope. This essentially simple framework of five key principles has been so helpful for schools, families to recognise what they’re already doing and then to prioritise the next steps.

How these five principles look in practice, I’ll show you in the following slides. From our experience, we found that connectedness is probably the most important and the foundation for which all of the other principles flow. To tell you a little bit about our program, we offer a range of services and we’re a multidisciplinary team. We’re able to allow the school or preschool community to choose what’s most helpful to them. The options range from group work and individual therapy with children to sessions for educators and parents to strengthen their skills and knowledge to adapt to their children’s needs after the disaster. The project is also designed to be flexible, to meet specific community needs and can easily be modified to respond to different disasters in other locations.

We’re a team of speech pathologists, psychologists, social workers and occupational therapists. We can flexibly support a number of different areas. We travel to where we’re needed and we offer a mixture of in-community and remote telecare delivery to home or school. We know that offers of help can be really overwhelming, can almost become another problem to deal with. Especially if not coordinated. We collaborate very closely with local services and also national agencies such as Give It, Red Cross and Be You. From our work and listening to families, we’ve heard over the last four years that support in three key areas is particularly helpful. Firstly, direct support for their children in the form of groups such as Stormbirds, Seasons for Growth, from MacKillop Seasons, individual therapy for children that need more intensive support.

Secondly, information on how disasters can impact children to help them know when to seek extra help and then support in actually connecting with that help. Whether it’s local services or practical resources. A third activity we’ve heard is really valued is actually parenting groups focused on relationship and emotion coaching, such as tuning into kids and more recently we’ve been offering circle of security too. These are delivered both online and in person, and we offer both day and evening groups. What we hear from parents is that they value not only the group content but the opportunity to connect with others with similar experiences. They’ve also said that the skills they’re learning are helpful for other challenges in family life. Since 2020, we’ve supported over 80 communities now, and in 2021, we received National Resilient Australia award.

We really wanted to contribute to research in this neglected area, so for the past three years, the program’s been independently evaluated by the team at Charles Sturt University. The evaluation shows that the program’s effective, and importantly, it also included an opportunity for children to share their feedback. Before I pass to Ben to lead the Q&A, I’d just like to share two quotes from children. First, “It’s okay to feel the way I feel, to show your feelings and to tell someone really what’s going on.” Finally, “There are people that can help.”

BEN ROGERS: Thanks, Sarah. Yeah, it’s so powerful to have the voice of children represented there at the end of your presentation. Thank you for sharing that. You, Bron and Andrea, thank you for sharing as well. Bron, you’ve had a lot of gratitude and appreciation coming through the chat, which you might be able to see, but people wanted to extend that to you. Thanks for sharing your lived experience. There’s a few questions coming through. Let’s dive in. We’ve got 30 minutes. We’ve got questions from the audience. The Hobfoll principles, I wouldn’t mind starting there, but for you Andrea, I wouldn’t mind wrapping this up around preparedness. This whole idea of why preparing for disasters is important. Why is that? I guess if you can think about those five Hobfoll principles as part of it. Sarah, you might want to contribute to that as well. We’ve lost your sound. I don’t know if that’s my sound but can you hear us, Andrea?

DR ANDREA BALDWIN: Sorry, Ben. I’m here. We’ve mentioned these principles a few times and you’ll see them expressed in different language in different places in the literature. I like to talk about safety, connection and then agency or self and community efficacy. It just means empowerment. The belief that you can do things to help yourself and that your community can help itself. Calm and hope. Now, if you think about a child, family, early learning centre or school preparing together for a severe weather event, and those preparations are being explained to the children as they go along, it can help them to feel safer, more connected to their family and their educational setting, feel like they have more agency or control in this situation, and in turn, these feelings can promote a sense of calm and a sense of hope. It’s almost cyclical.

I often say that distress lies in the gap between expectation and reality. If you’ve got a big gap, you get more distress. A smaller gap, less space for distress. It’s a lot easier to adjust our expectations, than to control what happens in reality. If a child has no idea what a flood is or that one could ever happen, they’ll be a lot more distressed and taken by surprise if one arrives. If they know in advance what is a flood, a lot of rain can cause a lot of water to be around, and that can go into houses and it can really make cars float. There’s all kinds of things that can happen in a flood that seem quite extraordinary, but we have a plan for if that happens. People will help. We’ll be okay. My team, the Birdie’s Tree team focuses on helping babies and young children in particular.

We create simple, colourful storybooks that help children understand natural hazards, plush toys and puppets. I don’t know if you can see but I’ve got Birdie and Mr Frog here. Games for children to play, information for their parents, carers and educators. These are all ways to help children process in advance, what these things are. Sometimes children are seeing things happening on media, for example, that they haven’t personally experienced but they’re getting this sense of these things that can happen and that can make them anxious. Making sure that they understand, in advance, the kinds of natural hazards that can occur, that there are ways to prepare for those things. There are steps to take to deal with them. There are people to help them. They won’t be left alone, and that they and their families can get through those tough times.

Really important for their mental health and wellbeing. Red Cross and some other organisations have resources for older children. Sarah has talked a bit about some of the resources that she uses. There’s some around for adolescence. I think that, Sarah, I’d like to throw to you. I think you have a few points around this as well.

SARAH EAGLAND: Yeah. Thanks, Andrea. Just to highlight that sadly, as much as we want to protect children, the current reality is that children and families are recovering, preparing and then experiencing further disasters at the same time. Support needs to be flexible to meet those changing needs. What we’ve found is that children would actually be less anxious if they feel that they are included in the plan. Definitely, when we were talking with children it was something that was really top of their minds. Like I say, it’s a very natural instinct to want to try to protect children from harm. Linking back to those five principles. If we have as much self and collective efficacy for children, it will also help them feel calm and safe. Obviously, bearing in mind their age and making sure that it’s a developmentally appropriate level for them, using the same communication that works for them. Older children, obviously, can be more involved. Yeah, the Red Cross pillowcase program. We found a wonderful bushfire book, How to Be Aware and Prepare, was a lovely way to go through the steps with children. Of course, the Birdie’s Tree books, no matter the age of the children, they all love them and can draw out the themes and make it meaningful for them.

BEN ROGERS: Thanks Andrea and Sarah. Bron, I’d like to draw you into this conversation, particularly thinking about what supported your family over time, the weeks, months and years that followed. I know we’ve talked about together around some of the storybooks and reading was helpful. What were the things that supported and those things that maybe weren’t as supportive overtime?

BRON SPARKES: Yeah, I guess I alluded to it in my story before. We had sought help on multiple occasions, and you have to be prepared if it doesn’t work to try again, try and try again until you find the right fit. Yeah, some of the supports that were offered therapeutically, it was like – I’ll give you an example. We had a lot of meltdowns and tantrums and dysregulation, particularly while we were in the caravan. A psychiatrist said to us, “Wrap them up like a sausage roll in a doona or something like that. Really tight so that they feel that they’re back in the womb and be with them while they self-soothe.” Shane and I go away and there were multiple occasions were we got to put that or try to put that into practice. We came back a few weeks later and he said, “How did you go?” We told him, “We found a blanket and we wrapped them up.”

He said, “Where are you doing it?” I said, “Well, the only place that we can do it is in the king single bed that Shane and I slept in at the end of the caravan.” He said, “You can’t teach them to self-soothe in the parents’ bed.” It’s like, “But we’ve got nowhere else to do it.” They had these tiny, little bunk beds half-way in the caravan. While it was all well-intended, we had to really make adjustments because our living conditions were quite unusual and different. Some of the other supports that were really helpful are probably not the ones that would come to mind for most of this audience. It’s about what are the additional wraparounds for a family in addition to the therapeutic work and the stories, which are all really, really important.

How else can we support this family to reduce the stress and the distress of rebuilding, not only their homes but also their lives? Sorry, that’s my son walking behind me. Yeah, there’s a whole lot of different – one of the things that really helped us was a mobile rebuilding advisory service. I was the only builder for the house that we rebuilt while I was trying to work, recover, cope and also try and hold that safe space for my children. Just having someone walk along beside me on my rebuilding journey and supporting that process, helped to take away some of my stress and distress so that then I had energy to be present for the children.

BEN ROGERS: Thanks, Bron. Hey, Dom, as you walk past. We get to say g’day to him. That’s something that the audience can think about. In the therapeutic work or the case management support or whatever it is, that broader context of home and the setting that the family’s working within in. I don’t know, Andrea or Sarah, if you had any other reflections about what Bron’s shared there.

SARAH EAGLAND: Yeah, I think understanding the multiple challenges that families are facing, whether it’s housing, cost of living crisis and increasing poverty, being really mindful of that and not going in with your lens of, “This is my expertise. This is what I want to deliver to you because I know I’m good at it, and I just want to do it.” It’s really taking that time to listen to what’s going to help. Also, very simple things like making it easy to find out about and access help. Bron mentioned repeatedly having to go for help until she can get the right help. Having really simple application processes, giving people a choice of whether it’s at home or school. We helped people with laptops. If there’s something that’s getting in the way of being able to access the support, really try and make it easy for them.

Don’t just say, “Well, you can apply for this charity.” Help them do it on their behalf. I think the other thing I’d say is that connecting with other parents and carers has really been something that they said that’s so helpful, because it’s such an isolating experience. You feel like you’re on your own, feel like you’re failing in every front. To be able to share with other people who have experienced things similar, it’s really helpful. I’d like to add, the importance of not working in siloes, because it’s easy to think, “This is my system. This is my role. This is the bit that I’m supposed to do.” We do have to be careful about boundaries and about not overburdening ourselves as well.

That’s where things like supervision and having a team that you work with and having people to talk with about the clients that you’re working with is really important, but sometimes the fewer individuals that a family needs to interact with the better. If there are things that you can step up and do or connect them together with, even if maybe that’s not normally part of your role or you might have to advocate for it to be part of your role in this case, once you’ve got – everything’s about relationships and once there’s a trusting relationship between a family and yourself as a practitioner, I do feel a responsibility to try to do as much as I can without handing that family off to, “Well, you need to go and form another relationship with these other people over there.”

At the very least, I can have relationships with other professionals and do warm referrals, and help the family navigate their way from person to person amongst people who know each other and who trust each other and can communicate that trust.

BEN ROGERS: Yeah, thank you everyone. I’ve got a few notes. We’ll circle back to a few things in the next question. One of the key things that has come through the Q&A from the audience is thinking about the signs and symptoms, Sarah, and knowing when further support might be required. I know through our experience of talking to a lot of professional across the country at Emerging Minds, that is tricky. Obviously, there’s the adaptive response which the flight or fight mechanism kicks in for a period of time and the presentations might be different. Then, there’s the contextual factors for families where there’s ongoing difficulties with housing, like Bron, you flagged in other things. It’s really complex to unpack all of that. I guess, with your work in the bushfire response program, what have you been noticing? As well as the work in the flood recovery space.

SARAH EAGLAND: I think children’s personal experience of disaster will be unique, and so there is no standard way a child will react. For some children, the most distressing part will be the separation from parents and carers during the evacuations. For others it will be disruption of school closures and losing their favourite play area. We often heard, “I think they’re okay. They didn’t lose their house.” It’s broadening your understanding of impact of a disaster to be all the many things that can impact children. As Andrea said, their response will vary greatly depending on their age, their developmental stage and previous history. Bron’s experience illustrates, this changes over time, over the years, but what we’ve noticed, I guess, from our work is that for many children, their wellbeing certainly had been affected in multiple ways.

Often, the impact was internal or hidden and the adults close to the child, families and schools were perhaps unaware of the extent of the difficulties they’re facing. It’s as though children were struggling to make sense of how they’re feeling themselves, and then putting it into words to share then was really hard. It can be important to be really curious and almost an emotional detective when thinking about this. Children aren’t able to talk directly about their experience and make it easy to understand how it’s affecting them. Often, it’s being alert to signs in their behaviour, thinking about how they were previously, what differences there are and what we’ve heard from children.

Often these were children that people thought were going okay, would be that they’re having nightmares, they can’t fall asleep, they’ve got intrusive thoughts coming in, really struggling to concentrate with their schoolwork, even having friendship difficulties, tummy aches, headaches and losing interest in activities they previously enjoyed, particularly if it was in the bush that’d been damaged. I remember a little boy saying he just didn’t want to mountain bike anymore. Feeling very worried of course if they smelled smoke or heard heavy rain. Parents and carers would notice that the children might be really reluctant to leave their side, or they might regress slightly and go back to behaviours that you thought they’d grown out of, such as bed wetting. These changes could happen immediately after or it might be several weeks or months.

It might come and go. You might not see it at home, but it might be at school or vis versa. Obviously, children who’ve got pre-existing challenges before the disaster might struggle the most, and often they might have the least resources in their support system as well to help their recovery. We found that Emerging Minds has a really good range of factsheets which describe typical responses following a traumatic event for different age groups, which was really helpful for us as a team and then to share with schools and with families.

BEN ROGERS: Yeah. Thanks, Sarah. Bron, what have you noticed, I guess, over time with your kids? You talked about that reflection and hope, and coming together each year and being as a family unit. What are some things you’ve been noticing over time?

BRON SPARKESI think the biggest thing that I’ve noticed is that, I guess, the children and myself and my husband and our family have continued to need supports at different times in our journey. The children, as they grow up, it was like every couple of years there’d be a real big shift and it was almost like they had to go back and reprocess what they’d been through when they were so tiny. For us, for me as a mother, to try and, I guess, support them through that. It’s interesting. They don’t actually like talking about the fires. They don’t think that the fires have actually had any impact on them whatsoever, and that everything else is, I don’t know, our fault. I think that comes down to them not necessarily having the narrative memory of what happened. Their bodies certainly betray them a lot of the time.

We and the children still have a really low threshold for tipping into that high arousal and dysregulated state. I think the other thing that – just picking up on what Sarah said where children who might have some pre-existing challenges before an event like this, you can make assumptions that all of the behaviours that are manifesting after the event are due to, solely, the event. For some children, it’s actually just a compounding effect that’s had on some of their pre-existing challenges. This can actually lead to delays in diagnoses or misdiagnosing things like ADHD. The child might not have ADHD, but they’re actually triggered really easily, or autism spectrum disorder which has got a lot of parallels with developmental trauma in terms of how it manifests in a child.

I guess it’s being, I guess, attuned to how the child was before the event, and then how that event has turned the volume up on some of those things and not to assume that it was just the event that is causing those challenging behaviours.

BEN ROGERS: Thank you, Bron. We’ve had a lot of questions come through, so thank you to the audience and we’ve got time for about 10 more minutes, but we will be recording answers to these questions later that will come with your overall pack in a couple of weeks. Just to let the audience know that. I wouldn’t mind moving on in this last part to talk about strategies. Dive into that a little bit deeper with each of you. Andrea, there’s a diverse range of professionals who are tuning in today, and one of the things that Bron, you mentioned and earlier was mentioned by you, Andrea, was around the Bessel van der Kolk work around the Body Keeps the Score. I guess I’m just thinking about what are some key recommendations that the audience can take when working with families around some of the strategies or therapeutic approaches.

DR ANDREA BALDWIN: Sure. I’m going to talk about children, but I want to bear in mind the importance of supporting parents and the people who are around the child as well. Just to get really practical about some of the strategies with children, as we tend – as professionals who are trained in western systems of health and education, we tend to think about language and cognition as the way to process emotional experiences, but children process their thoughts, their feelings and their sensory experiences quite directly through their bodies. We need to understand where are they at in terms of their regulation, their energy level. How are their feelings sitting in their bodies? How are these feelings being expressed through their behaviour? Then, the approaches we take to supporting them are going to include, what does the space and situation allow? As Bron said.

The child’s own activity preferences and so on. My team often says, young children process experience through talk, art, play and stories. The body level, we need to find ways to support children to regulate their energy, help them get grounded, help them centre themselves in the here and now, so that they’re not brooding on the past and worrying about the future, but feeling safe and connected where they are. Activities can include mindful movement, relaxation, breathing, rocking, running and dancing. Creative activities help to integrate thoughts and feelings. That’s things like colouring, drawing, play, painting, using Play-Doh or clay, doing collage, dress ups, roleplaying, playing with toys and images. Music is great. Listening to music, singing and dancing.

Sensory things like cuddling a soft toy, happen to have one right here. Playing with sensory fabrics, even for really little ones. Stories can help the children to make sense of real-world experience. A story has a beginning, middle and an end. It’s got an emotional arc. It’s got characters and events the child can relate to. They’ve got the similarities and differences with their own experiences. It’s contained within covers, so the child can choose to open it up, close it, carry it around, hide it under the bed, have that sense of agency over the book. We write Birdie’s stories with very clear attention to the character’s feelings. Helping children with that emotional literacy, putting the words to big feelings. Looking at who helps, how do the characters get back to being safe and happy again after the event?

We’ve got a resource list that’s coming out with this webinar and there’s some really clear guidance on some resources and programs available for families, educators, teachers and other professionals working with children of different ages.

BEN ROGERS: Thanks, Andrea. I love how you’re thinking about the body-based approaches and play. I think the integration of both is a really great way of getting kids to learn self-regulation in the context of working with you. It’s that co-regulation piece. For instance, I know Sarah, the OT team where I’ve worked in the past do a lot of the bubble monster, which is using straws and water, a little bit of detergent to work on that forced slow exploration and kids practice that. I know my kids do that in the bath and the shower and different places now. Yeah, so it’s teaching that within it and learning the skills. Bron, you and I, we’ve talked on this a little bit, some of the things with the body, what you’ve noticed in your kids and things that have helped, extracurricular activities. I think kids can show you the way, isn’t it? Through their body sometimes. What have you noticed for your family?

BRON SPARKES: Yeah, that’s right. I think going back to what their reaction or what their experience was on the day, and I’ll use Dom again as an example. When we were inside the house, I had to lay on top of him because he was screaming and clawing at me. His fight-flight mechanism was to flee and fight, and my full body weight on top of him prevented him from being able to do what his body was telling him to do. For many years, he really struggled with that. He was always wanting to fight. He went from this gentle little person to this angry, fearful, aggressive young boy. It wasn’t until he started doing gymnastics. He was about five, six years old where it was really intensive physical activity, spatial awareness, that we actually started to see a shift in him, and it did him, for a number of years, a world of good.

He really needed – His body really needed to be able to express its fight-flight mechanism, but in a way that was safe and productive rather than destructive, which it had been in the past. I think thinking about what was the child’s experience and what were they not able to do in their fight, flight or freeze state, and how can we enable them to help working them through that.

BEN ROGERS: Thanks, Bron. It’s really interesting hearing that. Sarah, you mentioned earlier around the curiosity as professionals in working with families. I wonder if there’s any reflections you have about how your team works with educators, parents and even children around drawing on what things might be supporting them in a daily life as part of recovery.

SARAH EAGLAND: I mean, definitely supporting children within the context of their world. Supporting all those important adults in their life as well. Actually, the principles that work with children which were connecting with their peers, making things fun, focusing on that emotional literacy, helping them to learn about their emotional reactions. Actually, all of those have actually been very helpful working with adults as well, the parents love connecting together, making those messages in the parenting groups as fun and interesting as possible as well, we’re going through that. Also with educators, often it’s demonstrating and showing the practical activities you might do with children, but the adults doing it at the same time. They actually love doing them as well.

A point I’d love to make about educators is that they play such an incredible role in helping children get back to sense of safety and calm by – they’re always very driven to get schools back running and provide that stability for children and they put so much into and there’s so many demands of them beyond their teaching role. That obviously takes a role. Very rarely would they say, “We need support.” They’d be like, “Support the children first.” It would be perhaps six months later when we say, “Can we do some support with you?” They go, “Actually, yeah. Now, we’re ready.” Not just about – they’re very interested in professional learning and how to support children who’ve experienced a traumatic event like that in the classroom, but also then, how do support their own wellbeing and that’s reflected as well in our own team as well.

Supporting wellbeing for the educators, for all those adults supporting children, but also for those services that are helping. It’s been so important to make sure that we practice what we preach and that we do keep that focus and put it into practice with some real, tangible specialties.

BEN ROGERS: Yeah. Thanks, Sarah. Thanks to all of you for today. I think one of the notes to leave it on around the child’s voice part of this last bit of the conversation is as professionals working with kids can we be curious but also create space to listen and observe what it is they’re telling us they need as part of their own recovery. I think that’s really important  and something I’ve heard each of you talk about today. There’s so much more I think we should do on this topic; future webinars and other areas. Just on behalf of the audience today, a big, warm thank you for all of the panellists, for everything you’ve shared. I’m sure and I can see through the chat that there’s a lot of reflections happening across Australia with those that are logging in today. Thank you to each of you.

Also, a big thank you to the Ace team in the background that you can’t see for helping this come to life today, and to you, the audience. We can’t see you but I do feel you and your presence, obviously through the chat. We hope that we can connect with you in different ways and forms in the future as well. Yeah, a reminder that Ace will place this on the website in a couple of weeks, and there’s a survey that’ll pop up, so we appreciate any feedback. The next webinar is child-centred approaches to supporting children in out-of-home care and those registrations opened today. Take care everyone and we’ll see you again soon.

Hello, to you, the audience. What we’ve decided to do is record a series of our reflections and answers to the abundance of questions that have come through. Thank you for everyone providing questions as part of the webinar. We’ve got some time now just to unpack them with the panellists. Bron, one of the questions that’s come through is around evacuation centres. Obviously, we move into more of that immediate response for families. For those professionals who are working in evacuation centres, what advice or guidance would you have for them in supporting children and families?

BRON SPARKES: Yeah. Evacuation centres are often really tricky because they are stood up really quickly and they’ll be in really big spaces, usually like a school hall, what have you. Children and families who might normally have a very quiet, safe, environment that they operate within are all of a sudden thrown into a really big, loud space with a whole lot of other children and adults and strangers that they don’t know. I think in an evacuation centre, creating smaller, safer, quieter spaces for children to go with their parents and caregivers or grandparents, so that they can maintain some familiarity around them, but they’re not, I guess, stuck in an overwhelming, sensory space with everyone else. Then, I also think about families that might have infants that have had to evacuate really quickly.

Particularly those where infants are either being breastfed or bottle fed, making sure that there’s some infrastructure there for little babies, particularly if they’re being bottle fed to be safely fed as well, because I know that there’s a whole lot of issues around that, people not having clean water or sterilised bottles. Ends up with other issues for the little babies. Then, there’s recovery and relief centres as well. We didn’t end up in an evacuation centre, but we did end up having to go to relief and recovery centres, really, to get a lot of the paperwork done. This was pre a lot of online forms and stuff like that. I had to take a two-year-old and a four-year-old and myself in a very frazzled, fried state, into these spaces. I remember, there was a hall and it was full of material donations and well-meaning people would come in and say, “Hey, children. We’ll take you and you can choose whatever you want from all of these donations.”

While I got ferreted away to do paperwork. Effectively, we were separated, and that didn’t make the children feel safe. It didn’t make me feel safe because I couldn’t see my children. It also exposed very, I guess, malleable young minds to, hey, you can take whatever you want. It took many years for us to be able to unpack or to wind that back for the kids. They expected that everything was for free, that everything was on demand, and it wasn’t. I think the last thing that I’d raise about particularly the relief and recovery centres is where you might have people who are providing psychological first aid, checking in on our – how we’re coping. Don’t assume that mum or dad or the caregiver or the child is okay because they look like they’ve put themselves together well and they’re really articulate, because they’re probably not.

This is my experience. People would be – I’d talk to them and they’re like, “You’re fine. Look at you. You’re able to talk. You’re able to go through the motions of recovery. You don’t need any help.” That really made me feel more isolated because my feelings and what was happening to me internally was not being validated by someone who was supposed to be someone who could tune into those things. I know that it can be a really scary thing for someone who might’ve done some slight first aid training, to ask some of those hard questions, because they want people to be okay rather than them not being okay. I think I give permission for you to say, “I don’t think you’re okay. Let’s talk about it.” Thanks, Ben.

BEN ROGERS: Thanks, Bron. You mentioned psychological first aid in that and those core principles. It makes me think about the Hobfoll principles that were shared today and how aligned they are around safety and connection, efficacy and those things. It sounds like, Bron, in that is just validating and really meeting your family where they are is just so important in those moments. Andrea, I know we’ve talked about the challenges at a workforce space as well, for those that are working in evacuation centres. I guess the dual role that they might be holding as well around supporting families but also moving through their own recovery as well. What kind of reflections do you have around that, for the professionals listening in today?

DR ANDREA BALDWIN: This is a bit of a systems question, Ben, because I think we’re getting better at it. We’re building this capacity, but it’s happening slowly and we need to articulate it and be conscious of it, we need to build a sort of surge capacity when there are workforce in a place that hasn’t been affected by a natural disaster just now, that we can move and deploy to the place that has. That’s one of the things that we’re doing in Queensland around just disaster recovery clinicians, that you’ve got mental health professionals who can quickly go and support the mental health professionals in the area that’s been affected by the disaster and either walk beside them and help them to do their work, or sometimes step up and do their work if they’ve been affected and they’re not actually able to do it.

That’s something that we need to think about at the government level and state and territory level as well as locally and within systems like health and education, and disaster management itself, because people can’t just go on, go on, go on managing. When their own homes and families have been affected, they’ll fall over. We’ve got to be there for each other.

BEN ROGERS: Thanks, Andrea. I know in terms of within evacuation centres and relief centres, the Birdie’s Tree resource is a really good practical tool that could be on hand to support sitting with kids, helping with that meaning making process. What have you found is helpful with the resource that you and your team have created?

DR ANDREA BALDWIN: We actually have a book called Birdie and the Shelter. It is specifically to help exactly what Bron was saying, children find emergency shelters quite overwhelming, scary. They’re full of unfamiliar people and concerned voices and anxiety. Mum and Dad are stressed. We’ve got a book called Birdie and the Shelter that you can use to help a child prepare for the possibility that that might ever happen. You can help the child who’s actually in the centre during that response time and you can use it to help them process their experiences afterwards in recovery. Here in Queensland, one of the things we’re trying to do is get a kit of Birdie’s Tree resources, that’s the 11 Story books, Fun with Birdie, Mindful Movement Routine –

Sorry, Fun with Birdie activity, relaxing with Birdie, Mindful Movement Routine, set of puppets, some craft materials, all packed up in a storage box because it may be sitting on a shelf, hopefully, for a year or two or longer, but that it’s ready to go in any place that might be used as an evacuation centre or a community recovery hub, or a place that resources are going to be deployed to a place like that when it’s stood up, so that if the roads are cut, if it’s hard to get things through to a place, you don’t have to worry about that. It’s already there. The other bit to that is training the personnel who are likely to be supporting the families in those centres to read the stories with the children, to use the puppets, to use those resources to support their mental health and wellbeing in that situation. We’re really happy to work with anyone else across the country who’d like to do the same thing.

BEN ROGERS: Thanks, Bron and Andrea. That’s definitely something that we’ve been hearing, talking to professionals across the country. The resources and the readily available resources when needed. Part that at Emerging Minds is working closely with professional across the country to develop a practice guide, which is a toolkit of a series of practices that can help set up an evacuation centre, for instance. Quick and easy, pick it up, have a look at it and review. Part of that is having Birdie’s Tree resources. Part of that is thinking about how you might connect and engage with families. Yeah, stay tuned for that later in the year, on the Emerging Minds website. Sarah, I want to bring you into the conversation now. I know there’s been a lot of work that Royal Fire West, UNICEF and Deloitte have been doing around climate change.

There is a growing impact of changing climate, increased disasters, more frequent than ever. I heard a stat in Queensland, and Andrea, you could comment on this. There’s been 90 significant events in Queensland in the last six or seven years. It’s really compounding and cascading into each other. There’s this question. It’s a big one, but just to touch on thinking about what it means for families and the workforce supporting them.

SARAH EAGLAND: Absolutely agree. The severity and frequency of disasters has increased significantly. I think nearly all the schools that participated in the program were in places that have experienced multiple disasters in quick succession. As part of our evaluation actually, Charles Sturt University developed a disaster index to show just the many, many disasters that those communities had experienced. It was, yeah, quite confronting to see that visibly, visually shown. Then of course, with those compounding disasters, not only are children experiencing an increase in number of really stressful, traumatic events, but at the same time, the support systems around them are also overwhelmed with this disaster fatigue and over use. Yeah, it’s an awful situation and the children growing up today are experiencing something that no adults have experienced.

It’s unprecedented. The first principle of trauma-informed care is to stop the trauma happening in the first place. This absolutely – it’s a child’s rights issue. Children in rural and remote areas are the most impacted. We see our role. Not only do we need to support the children’s recovery, we don’t want to be needed. We also need to advocate, to raise awareness, the impact on children and the need for climate action. That’s exactly what we’re hearing from the children. They are very – they far earlier got the link between the disaster they’re experiencing and climate change. Adults around them have slowly caught up to that. Our advocacy work is ongoing. Last year, we partnered with UNICEF Australia to create a film to highlight this. That was actually shown in COP 28, last year.

We were so pleased that that was getting to that worldwide audience. There’s a link to that film for all of the participants in the webinar today. What that means, I guess, from a workforce perspective, when we were first funded by UNICEF Australia and partnered with them to deliver the program for that first year, we thought it would just be the year. That would fit with that existing timeline of disaster recovery. You work with certain time. That’s totally been thrown away now. It’s a totally different scenario with compounding disasters. From a workforce perspective, we were very aware of the personal impact of this challenging area of work, year after year. I wanted to actually, really look into that. As part of the evaluation Charles Sturt University did, asked them to look at what is the impact on the team.

What helps and what is getting in the way of their wellbeing? This really highlighted the crucial importance of having a whole culture really that values strategies to maintain health and professional wellbeing, and it being a shared responsibility between the team members and their work environment. There’s so many practical examples of what the team said had been helpful. For example, debriefs after every community visit. Of course, regular supervision. Each team member has their own individual wellbeing plan because it’s not enough to impose wellbeing strategies on everyone, because they’re really different. For some people it’s one thing, for another it’s actually the opposite. It’s really, again, take your time to listen. What is it that will support that individual? Never think, “Okay, we’ve got wellbeing covered.” It’s actually, you’ve got to be tending it constantly.

BEN ROGERS: Yeah. Thanks, Sarah. Makes me think about the importance of agency in this work and flexibility, obviously, in the funding cycles and length of time that services and programs can work with communities. I know that’s been something you’ve talked about a lot, in helping build the relationships and then respond in those attuned ways to the needs at the community level.

SARAH EAGLAND: Absolutely. We’ve really seen the need. I mean, the evidence and research is showing that recovery is long-term. The support needs to be in place. We’re talking five, seven years now. We’re certainly seeing that. We often find that within that first year of working with communities, there’s only certain elements that they’re able to engage with and that their priorities are one thing and then they move to different priorities in that second year, third year. Particularly in terms of the adult support, parent groups, educator support. It takes one or two years to be able to say, “Actually, yeah, we’re ready now. It would’ve been too soon before.” It’s such a tragedy when there’s very time-limited funding and resources, and people are offered something when they’re not ready to take it up.

Then, they’re like, “I’m ready for that now.” You’re like, “It’s evaporated. It’s gone.” Long-term sustainable funding to be able to really support recovery all the way. As Bron’s story’s shown. It wasn’t the year after that they needed support. It changed over time and it evolved and it’s to be responsive to that.

BEN ROGERS: Bron, I might come to you next, and just build off something we spoke about a few moments ago around the professionals that are holding that dual role in the community. Particularly the education context. We know that a learning community is so important and protective in supporting a recovery following an event, but there’s a lot of factors that wrap around that. Obviously, one of them is that the educators have often experienced their own traumas as part of the disaster as well. What were your family’s experience, working in that education setting and any reflections you have around that dual role in the community?

BRON SPARKES: Yeah. Thanks, Ben. It’s a really good question. I guess particularly in your more regional, remote communities, the teachers and the principals and the adults that work in the school setting live within that community as well. It’s highly likely that they are also going to be going to have experienced the disaster and are managing some of the consequences after that. They’re also having to play that role of the educator and that central part of particularly these small communities. The experience that we had; we were part of the Strathewen school community down in Victoria. They got the school up and running literally two days later. 40 kilometres from where the school had stood, and everyone was welcome. They created an environment that all of the children – mine were just starting to enter pre-prep programs.

They weren’t actually – They’d done one day at the actual school, or my daughter had. They just welcomed us in and provided us with significant support. They welcomed both the children back and the parents and the caregivers, but the broader Strathewen community was also welcome back, because they had been such an integral part of the community. What I saw – I mean, I’m eternally grateful for the work that the adults, the educators, the administrators at Strathewen primary school did after Black Saturday, because they were a significant support to myself and to the family and to the children. Not only in the immediate aftermath but in the years afterwards as well, but who was looking after the small handful of people that were looking after and felt this great responsibility to care for and hold a space for over 100 people, essentially.

I honestly don’t know how they did it. This was 15 years ago and I don’t know whether the education system was really set up or structured to provide them with the support that they needed at that time. It might’ve actually generated a bit of a shift in how we support educators to support the community, post-disaster. It was really a significant part of our journey, and a significant part of their journey as well. I think they put on the backburner, sorry for the pun, their needs and their recovery needs back at home, in order to be present for that school and for their community.

BEN ROGERS: Yeah. Thanks, Bron. I know part of the work that I did in 2019 – well, 2020, ’21 was working with Be You as part of the bushfire response program and rolling out services to early learning in primary, secondary schools and one of the core things that came out of that was trying to develop a framework, essentially, for educators about what their role was in supporting recovery and there were four core things that came out of that. First one, like you mentioned, was wellbeing and having those structures and systems in place to support the wellbeing of staff. At times, principals talked about actually bringing in other staff, like Andrea was saying. A surge workforce where they can take the daily operations and allow the principal to stand at the dishwasher and talk to other educators.

The other thing was these daily approaches were – the daily interactions and things, the predictability, the social and emotional wellbeing programs, lots of what was already in place was really supportive. The other piece was just monitoring the educators and monitoring how kids were going. The final part was activating support and working with the local community. There’s that. I’ll post the links to the e-learning, the free e-learning we’ve developed in that space with Be You. Yeah, once you’ve started mapping it out, you can see the amount of hats that educators were wearing and holding in supporting the recovery process. Thanks for reflecting on that.

BRON SPARKES: That’s all right. I was also going to say, it was hard for the teachers in the years afterwards because we – what they noticed with these students is that there was a significant impact on their ability to learn and retain language, retain knowledge, to keep up with the typical milestones that they do within the curriculum. You had NAPLAN and all of that sort of stuff. Children weren’t necessarily performing as was expected because: one, their ability to learn had been disrupted, but two, the educators, the teachers and the admin staff that were there day-to-day were supporting children. They were down tools when a child in their classroom was really struggling. That actually indicated, it was like the canary in the mine. It actually indicated that a lot of the children were struggling.

They were just down tools. The lesson’s going to be set aside and let’s talk this through and hold that space for them. I guess from a monitoring of education milestones, and are you actually meeting your KPIs, that can also be a bit of a challenge. What does that reflect on the school? In a normal sense, it doesn’t look great, but they’re doing a whole lot of amazing other work. Which is probably more important at that time.

BEN ROGERS: Yeah. I feel like there’s a whole webinar on this and lots of the topics. The panellists and I will come together for those listening in, and pull together some resources in this space and the other areas as well. There’s a question that’s come through it’d be nice to finish on today, and it was someone asked, “I’m interested in the relationship between connection with nature and recovery.” Andrea, I know that your dad was a park ranger, wasn’t he? Growing up, and you spent a lot of time in nature. I’ve learnt a lot about epicormic growth and a few things like that from you. I think that might be a nice spot for us to finish on today.

DR ANDREA BALDWIN: Sure. I think one of the points that people are making is that the more connected you are to nature and the natural world around you, the more grieved and distressed you’re going to be when there’s a lot of destruction; when animals are injured or killed, when the forest is burnt, the landscape is completely changed from what you know. There’s quite a lot of literature around that and the nostalgia for the place as you know it. Of course, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are very strongly culturally, socially and spiritually connected to country and will mourn for the damage. People who live on the land, farmers, people who are used to living close to the cycles of nature will often be maybe more impacted than somebody who lives – one removed from the natural world normally.

The other side of that, and I think it’s important for us to not always dwell on the doom and gloom and the negative mental health impacts of things that we go through, is that floods and fires and drought and cyclones are part of the natural world and the cycle that happens. We know that climate change is making them more severe and frequent, but we also know that this country has been here for a very long time and has weathered these things. Your closer connection to the natural world can also be comforting as you watch things recover and bounce back. Ben, you mentioned epicormic growth. It’s one of the most beautiful things that my dad ever showed me, is that when a bushfire has been through an area and everything looks dead, and it looks black and devastated, the trees know to quickly put out little green leaves up the bark of their trunks.

That’s not where those green leaves would ever normally grow. They would grow on limbs and branches and twigs, but the trees know how to adapt and they put out this epicormic growth to quickly photosynthesize so that they can recover and get that energy back, and grow back into the trees that they were. It’s not uncommon to go through an area that was completely devastated by a bushfire two or three years ago, and you’d never know that there was a fire through there. For me, that’s an image that I do like to dwell on and I do like to think of, the more connected we are to the natural world, the more we care about it, the more distressed we can be by bad things happening to it, especially human-caused bad things, but also the more comfort we can take from watching things recover and knowing that we can recover too.

BEN ROGERS: What a beautiful place to finish today, and thanks again to you, the panellists. It’s been wonderful working with you on this. Look forward to future work together. Thank you to the audience as well.


Bron Sparkes (Director, National Emergency Management Agency plus Lived Experience)

Bron Sparkes survived the 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires with her husband and young children (2 and 4 years). They narrowly escaped their burning home and sheltered together between water tanks under a woolen blanket. They lived in a caravan on their block for 2.5 years while they rebuilt their home and lives, with the support of friends, family and their community. Bron is also an Australian public servant of over 20 years, who brought her extensive policy, risk management and business continuity experience together with her lived experience to work in the emergency management sector.  She has a Masters in Disaster Resilience and Sustainable Development from the University of Newcastle, and a passion for advocating for policies and practices which achieve better outcomes for people at greater risk of harm in disasters. She currently lives in Canberra with her husband Shane and their two children Dom and Lola, and is also a proud ‘bonus' mum to three adult children, Max, Vicki and Pierra.

-	Dr Andrea Baldwin (Service Development Leader, Queensland Centre for Perinatal and Infant Mental Health)

Dr Andrea Baldwin is a psychologist and Service Development Leader at the Queensland Centre for Perinatal and Infant Mental Health, Children’s Health Queensland Hospital and Health Service. Andrea coordinates the Birdie’s Tree initiative, which supports the emotional wellbeing of babies, young children and their families in the context of natural hazards and disruptive events. She has written 7 of the 11 Birdie storybooks and leads the team that develops professional learning programs including the Birdie’s Tree Early Learning Program for early childhood educators and Birdie’s Tree Universal Resources Training for teachers. 

Andrea has been Child and Youth Clinical Consultant for 3 mental health activations for major floods and bushfires, working across most of Queensland and into northern NSW. While Andrea is committed to working with Councils and other organisations to build community resilience in the preparedness, response and recovery phases of natural disasters, she particularly enjoys working directly with children, families and educators. At the national level, Andrea serves on the National Infant and Child Disaster Mental Health Advisory Committee (NICDAC) and the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience (AIDR) Disaster Resilience Education Strategy Group (DRSEG).

Sarah Eagland (Head of Community Recovery, Royal Far West)

Sarah Eagland is a Social Worker who has worked with children and families for the past 30 years and now specialises in supporting children impacted by disasters in Australia. As Head of Community Recovery at Royal Far West she has designed and led an innovative multidisciplinary service model to help children and their families recover from the devastating impact of the 2019/20 Bushfires and the 2022 Floods. In 2021, the Program was awarded the Resilient Australia National Community Award (Australian Institute of Disaster Resilience) and continues to be delivered in 60 disaster impacted communities in NSW and Queensland.


Ben Rogers (Manager of Digital Health, Emerging Minds)

Ben Rogers, Manager of Digital Health at Emerging Minds, leads family and education resource development at the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health. An Occupational Therapist with a focus on rural families through telehealth, Ben also manages the disaster and climate change stream at Emerging Minds, leveraging his expertise in developing and delivering workforce development and training in disaster recovery efforts. 

With a track record of leading complex projects, including national mental health promotion initiatives and large-scale telehealth projects, Ben is dedicated to advancing child mental health support through innovation and collaboration.