'It's Just What I Have To Do': Country Kids Share The Drought's Hidden Stories
Shooting malnourished lambs for the first time, feeding stock in between school and homework and constantly thinking about money.
These are some of the experiences of children living in drought-stricken communities across regional NSW who are showing immense resilience as they are forced to "grow up" prematurely.
"Before the start of this year, I'd never shot a lamb in my life, and I've probably done about 50 or so this year," said one boy in Year 10.
I didn't want to do it. Like, I cried, sort of thing... But now, it's just easy. You just do it.
"I think I did grow up faster than my sister did at my age," another girl in Year 9 said.
"It's just what I have to do -- I just wish it was green."
These testimonies are among the dozens compiled in a new report by UNICEF Australia that confirms children and young peoples' experiences -- often hidden from coverage of prolonged drought -- are taking a growing psychological toll as conditions stretch on.
The report, released on Tuesday, features accounts from 54 primary and secondary school students across drought-affected areas of NSW -- namely Tamworth, Gunnedah, Narrabri and Walgett -- and found many are struggling under significant pressures without adequate support.
The testimonies paint a varied picture of how drought has changed lives, with children and young people expressing a sense of responsibility to "step up" and assist their parents and families with "adult decisions".
I normally wake up at 7 o'clock and do the same things: get dressed, brush my teeth and go to work instead." (Girl, Year 2)
Worrying about the cattle. That’s it. Sleep, school, it’s all secondary.” (Boy, Year 11/12)
The additional workload, paired with a lack of quality time spent with parents and siblings and fears about the future, is taking its toll; the dry, brown and grey landscapes a constant reminder of their struggles.
"It sucks the happiness out of you, but then the people bring it back," said one girl in Year 6.
Many reported the high levels of stress, anger and tension the drought has brought to their homes and school life, with some feeling guilty the cost of their education was an additional pressure on their parents.
One Year 10 boy said he felt "powerless".
"You hear them on the phone. You know how difficult it is financially," he said.
"These young people care deeply about and are abundantly aware of the trauma their parents are going through," UNICEF Australia senior policy advisor Oliver White said.
"At the same time, [they] are operating with the over-arching attitude that they shouldn't talk about their own psychological reactions and concerns because 'it is always worse for someone else."
'Kids can only cope for so long'
The report clearly stresses it does not set out to hang blame on parents, most of whom "are doing the very best they can" for their children.
The agency has called on the government to direct more of its drought-relief support towards direct interventions for children and young people.
"Even if many children and young people are 'coping' at a moderate level now, as time goes on, their ability to cope and manage the effects of the drought on their lives is likely to diminish," it reads.
“UNICEF Australia believes there is more than the Australian Government could do to strengthen its response for drought, child and youth sensitive services."
'We're in it together'
By the end of the report, one thread becomes infinitely clear: like adults, children affected by drought have grown to become incredibly resilient.
"We all know what we have to do to get through it. Just keep going," one boy from Year 11/12 said.
And from another: "Because everyone's going through the same thing."
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Featured image: Getty