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Dealing with a crisis

crisis; stress; loss; changes; distress; grief; disasters ;

If we get too stressed and believe we cannot cope any more, then we are in crisis. In a crisis, children need to feel safe and that there is someone they can rely on. They have similar feelings to adults but may show them in actions rather than words.


Stress in our lives isn't always unhealthy. It is often a time when we make changes for the better. However, if we get too stressed and believe we cannot cope any more, then we are in crisis.

In a crisis, children need to feel safe and that there is someone they can rely on. They have similar feelings to adults but may show them in actions rather than words.

Children learn by watching how their parents deal with a crisis. Parents can face many crises through a lifetime of raising children.

What is a crisis?

In a crisis there is usually an event involving change and also loss. It could be the loss of someone through death or separation, the loss of health through illness or accident, or the loss of something such as a house or a job.

As a result of the crisis you might feel bad about yourself, feel like a failure, or feel unable to cope because you:

  • have never been in the situation before
  • have found it hard to cope with a similar situation in the past
  • don't feel in control
  • feel tired, worn out or unwell.

People often have an emotional response to the stress of a crisis. They might feel scared, anxious, or angry.

People respond differently to crises, even people in the same family.  A crisis for one person may not be a crisis for someone else.

What causes a crisis?

Many things can lead to a crisis. A sudden threat to your life or safety can create a crisis, e.g. a flood, fire or earthquake. You or a loved one might have an accident. There may be big changes in the workplace or you could lose your job. People usually experience a crisis if their relationship breaks down.

Other things that might cause a crisis are:

  • having a miscarriage
  • having a child with a disability
  • a child starting or leaving school
  • a child leaving home
  • a family member in trouble with the law
  • losing or winning money
  • being arrested
  • a major birthday, or the start of a new decade.

Even good things can feel like a crisis. Things like getting married, having a baby, being promoted or moving house are positive but are times of big change.

A crisis can also be triggered when a lot of things happen at once or build up on each other over time.

How to know when someone is in crisis

Some signs that a person may be in crisis include:

  • physical: sweaty palms, looking flushed, pounding heart, rapid breathing, shaking, diarrhoea, vomiting
  • thinking: confused, can't concentrate, can't make decisions, memory loss
  • emotional: anxiety, mood swings, withdrawal, despair, helplessness, agitation, panic
  • behaviour: broken sleep, antisocial behaviour, sudden outbursts of anger, crying, drug or alcohol misuse, changes in appetite.

People can often feel:

  • bewildered: 'I've never felt like this before'
  • scared: 'I feel nervous, worried'
  • confused: 'I can't think straight'
  • immobilised: 'I feel stuck and nothing helps'
  • despairing: 'It all feels hopeless'
  • angry: 'How dare he die and leave me'
  • apathetic: 'I just don't care any more'
  • overwhelmed: 'I don't feel in control'
  • a sense of urgency: 'I need help now!'
  • that the situation is not fair: 'Why is this happening to me?'

How children react

Children can have their own crises. Things that seem small to an adult can be a crisis for a child. This can confuse parents if they don't know what caused the crisis.

Seeing a parent or parents in distress can set off a crisis for a child.
The feelings children have in a crisis are similar to adults but they often show their feelings in actions rather than words.

They may:

  • be scared of things linked with the crisis, e.g. loud noises, dogs, strangers
  • fear there will be crises in other areas of their life as well
  • lose interest in school or other activities
  • act as though they are younger
  • have behaviour problems or problems with friends
  • have disturbed sleep or poor concentration.

Children react differently at different ages.

Reactions can include:
1–4 years
Thumb-sucking, bedwetting, fear of the dark, clinging to parents, nightmares, not sleeping or broken sleep, loss of bladder or bowel control, speech or feeding problems, fear of being left alone, irritable, fretful

5–10 years
Aggression, confusion, competing for attention, avoiding school, nightmares, poor concentration, tummy aches, headaches, fear of the dark, fear of being hurt or left alone

11–13 years
Changes in appetite, broken sleep, antisocial behaviour, school problems, anxiety, aches and pains, skin problems, fear of losing friends and family, acting as if it hasn't happened.

14–18 years
Physical problems (rashes, bowel problems, asthma attacks, headaches), changes in appetite and sleep, lack of interest in things they usually enjoy, lack of energy, antisocial behaviour, poor concentration, guilt. Some of these are part of the ups and downs of this age too.

In a crisis, children have similar feelings to adults. They often show their feelings in actions rather than words.

What parents can do

For yourself

In a crisis it is important that you recognise your feelings. Ignoring them won't make them go away. Give yourself time to be sad and to heal, but try to be positive about yourself and the future.

It helps if you work out what you can control and what things you are not able to change. Don't expect too much of yourself – everyone falls in a heap at some time. Respect that people deal with crises differently, even those close to you.

Anniversaries and special occasions can set off old hurts so make plans about how you will deal with these. Make time to relax and look after yourself and talk with supportive friends and family.

Working out what you can control will help you to focus and reduce your stress.

For children

What children need most is acceptance, understanding and support. They need to feel safe and that they have someone they can rely on. 

  • Try not to over-react. If you panic, your children will be more afraid. Calm down before talking with them.
  • Take charge if you need to. It will make your children feel safer. Let them know they will be looked after.
  • Tell your children what's happening, even if it is hard. Keep it simple and use words they understand. Saying that someone 'died' is better than 'passed away'. You may have to repeat things many times, even simple things.
  • Say enough for them to understand what has happened or what the problem is. Ask them what else they want to know but don't give them details they don't need.
  • Don't be afraid to say you don't know something.
  • It is OK to let your children see that you are upset. Tell them that you will be fine, if you think that is true.
  • Let your children know you don't expect them to look after you or solve the problem.
  • Help children to have contact with supportive family and friends.
  • Allow children the time and space to express their feelings. Some may want to draw, write, tell stories or keep a diary. If they feel aggressive, energetic play may help.
  • Spend extra time putting young children to bed at night. A night-light may help children who are scared.
  • Be patient if your children's behaviour is difficult to cope with.
  • Limit children's viewing of media images of disasters. If they do watch, be there to discuss it with them.
  • Make sure children eat well, are active and get plenty of rest.

Keep up your child's normal routine, even if it's just taking out the rubbish. It will help them feel safer.

Getting help

If you are worried about your children or yourself, seek help early. Your doctor is a good place to start.

If you feel you cannot give your children what they need, find someone else to help them.

Be positive about the future. Children need to believe things will get better. Encourage them, but don't make false promises.

Want more information?

Resources in South Australia

Children 0 to 16 years

Youth mental health services (aged 16 to 24 years)
Youth Mental Health Services are being rolled out across South Australia according to the following schedule:

  • Country South Australia - services available
  • Southern Adelaide (PDF - 1.2mb) - services available
  • Central Adelaide - services available from mid February 2015*
  • Northern Adelaide - services available from mid February 2015*

*Where Youth Mental Health Services have not yet begun, existing Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services for children aged 0 to 18 years and adult Mental Health Services for people 18 years and older are available.

Young people can access Youth Mental Health Services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call 13 14 65.
For more information about Youth Mental Health Services, visit the SA Health website.

Youth helplines
Youth helplines and 24 hour e-mental health supports

Youth Health Service:
Free, confidential health service and support for young people 12–25 years.

Child and Family Health Centres:
Phone 1300 733 606 9am–4.30pm Mon–Fri
For an appointment at your local Centre

Parent Helpline:
Phone 1300 364 100
Advice on child development and parenting



Parenting SA
For more Parent Easy Guides, eg. 'Coping skills', 'Bedwetting', 'Sleep disturbance', 'Children's mental health', and parent groups in your area

Raising Children Network
Information on raising children

Written by
Parenting SA
Women's and Children's Health Network
Telephone (08) 8303 1660
Related pdf version of the topic: Parent Easy Guide 72
Printed versions of the Parent Easy Guides are free in South Australia
© Department of Health, Government of South Australia. All rights reserved.

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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