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Open Access Research article

Family functioning in the aftermath of a natural disaster

Brett M McDermott12* and Vanessa E Cobham123

Author Affiliations

1 Kids in Mind Research: The Mater Center for Service Research in Mental Health, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

2 Mater Medical Research Institute, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

3 Department of Psychology, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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BMC Psychiatry 2012, 12:55  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-12-55

Published: 31 May 2012



Increased understanding of the complex determinants of adverse child mental health outcomes following acute stress such as natural disasters has led to a resurgence of interest in the role of parent psychopathology and parenting. The authors investigated whether family functioning in the post-disaster environment would be impaired relative to a non-exposed sample and potential correlates with family functioning such as disaster-related exposure and child posttraumatic mental health symptoms.


Three months after a category 5 tropical cyclone that impacted north Queensland Australia, school-based screening was undertaken to case identify children who may benefit from a mental health intervention. Along with obtaining informed consent, parents completed a measure of family functioning.


Of 145 families of children aged 8 to 12 years, 28.3% met criteria for dysfunction on the Family Adjustment Device, double the frequency in a community sample. The dysfunction group was significantly more likely to have experienced more internalising (anxiety/depression) symptoms. However, in an adjusted logistic regression model this group were not more likely to have elevated disaster-related exposure nor did children in these families validate more PTSD symptoms.


The implications of post-disaster discordant family functioning and possible different causal pathways for depressive and PTSD-related symptomatic responses to traumatic events are discussed.