Family relationships after a disaster

It’s normal for families to have difficulties after a disaster. Sometimes it might not be clear how problems are connected with the disaster, especially if they emerge long after the event.

Most families can become stronger following a crisis, but first you need to understand and deal with any issues.

Below are some common reactions a family may experience after a disaster. They can be immediate, or happen in the medium term or long term.

Immediate effects

Some reactions may happen immediately after the disaster and continue for a few weeks, including:

  • being afraid for each other’s safety away from home
  • nightmares or fear that another disaster will occur
  • anger about the fear and distress the disaster has caused. Sometimes this is directed at another family member or at people outside the family
  • loss of trust and confidence in themselves and other people
  • emotional turmoil, anger, guilt, sadness, unpredictable behaviour or unreasonable reactions
  • insecurity in children shown through behaviour such as bed wetting, changes in eating and sleeping habits or reverting to behaviour they have outgrown
  • difficulty communicating because family members don’t know what to say to each other or don’t feel like talking.

Medium term effects

Changes which are not obviously related to the disaster can happen weeks or months after the event. These change can include:

  • spouses/parents may be irritable or intolerant, leading to friction and misunderstanding between themselves and their children
  • children and teenagers can begin to seek attention or act disobediently, which usually means they are anxious or fearful
  • family members' feelings for each other may change as they become more detached or preoccupied with their own problems and reactions
  • family members may try too hard to help others and ignore their own needs
  • family members' work or school performance and concentration levels may suffer
  • spouses' sexual relationship may change
  • family members may lose interest in leisure, recreation, sport or social activities
  • teenagers may look outside the family for emotional support
  • Immediate post disaster responses may continue or appear for the first time.

Long term effects

Sometimes problems become evident for the first time, months or years after the event, and often appear as everyday issues. Problems can include:

  • memories of the disaster may come back if family members are involved in another crisis
  • family members often need to go over the events—perhaps for months or years—to better understand what has happened
  • people may find future disasters harder to handle, particularly when similar feelings occur
  • family members may hide painful feelings until things have returned to normal, and only then show their distress
  • immediate or medium term effects may occur as delayed reactions or may become habits.

You should consider any major change or problem in a family or for individuals could be related to the disaster, even if it happens a few years later.

Helpful things to do

These problems are all normal reactions to an event that has affected the whole family. A few ways to help your family recover after a disaster include:

  • keep communicating—talk about what is happening, how you each feel and you need from each other to avoid feeling alone, isolated and misunderstood
  • share information—children, teenagers and toddlers know something is going on and the reality is easier to deal with than the unknown
  • do things together—make time for fun
  • keep family roles clear —don’t let children to take on too much responsibility for too long. Understand if a family member can't fulfil their role and talk about how they will resume it when they are ready
  • be active—tackle problems, seek help, seek information and don’t let issues develop
  • look back—consider how everyone has changed since the disaster. Look for the ways it has influenced everyone for better or worse
  • express emotions—support distressed family members and give them time to understand their feelings
  • seek external support—keep in contact with support groups, other family, friends, neighbours and workmates. Make sure your family doesn’t become isolated.

When to seek help

You may need help if:

  • communication in the family is breaking down
  • parents don’t understand their children’s (or each other’s) behaviour
  • things aren’t improving over time
  • a family member’s physical or emotional health is deteriorating
  • family members don’t enjoy being together.

If you’re concerned about yourself, your spouse, children or parents talk to your general practitioner (GP), community health centre or community mental health service.

Some GPs have additional training and expertise in mental health. Search for a GP online or phone Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Call a phone counselling service to talk about your feelings and get information and advice.

Adapted with the permission of the Emergency Management Branch, Department of Human Services, Victorian Government.