With bushfires raging across our beautiful country, the devastation caused is difficult to comprehend. These are the worst bushfires on record. People have lost their lives; families have lost their homes, we’ve lost millions of our precious wildlife; our brave firefighters are performing heroic rescues and facing the front line day after day and yet there is no end in sight.
Distressing images and graphic news coverage have been circulating as the suffering becomes harder to fathom. Images of injured wildlife and displaced families can be troubling for empathetic adults. But for young children, these can be deeply distressing, cause anxiety and trauma.
Experts agree that parents should shield children from watching the disturbing live news coverage. But how do you talk with them about something difficult they’ve seen or heard in the news? How do you prepare them for what they might hear or answer questions they’re asking?
Tell them it's okay to talk to you
“What children probably need to hear most from us adults is that they can talk with us about anything and that we will do all we can to keep them safe in any scary time,”
The human body’s natural response to real and perceived danger is to drive the ‘fight or flight’ response in the brain. Stress hormones are activated as a natural response to danger. You may notice your child is finding it harder to settle or sleep, becoming clingier or wanting to sleep in the bed with you
Young children have a limited capacity to manage and cope with these feelings so adults need to have conversations with children about the big things that are happening.
It’s important to make it easier for kids to talk through topics like death and destruction – and the feelings that come with them – because you are the safest person to help them process their emotions.
- Start with what they know. Gauge kids understanding of the bushfires by asking open-ended questions like “Tell me what you know about the bushfires…”.
- Use age-appropriate language to work out how they are feeling. This may be in the form of talking to them about feelings of butterflies in their tummy etc.
- Try to name the emotion they are feeling such as ‘sad, ‘scared’, ‘a bit frightened’, ‘worried’
- Help them understand it’s normal to feel that strong emotion and guide them to sit with their feelings
- Give them strategies to help them move through these feelings such as taking some deep breaths, going for a walk, playing with a pet or drawing.
By doing this you’ve made it safe to talk to you about these topics, normalised their feelings and given them coping strategies.
Talk to them about Emergency Plans for your house and family
Giving kids roles in safety plans can help their understanding of the situation and reduce anxiety. Let them know what plans you have in place to make sure that everyone is as safe as possible when emergencies happen.
Talk to them about:
- Calling triple 000
- Teach them their address and your phone number
- Stop, drop and roll
- Using a wet towel to put over their face when there’s too much smoke
- Your families escape plan - how do we get out? what would we take? where do we meet?
- Let them choose which toys they would like to take with them
Give kids a way to help
Whether it’s helping you collect donations for the bushfires, writing a letter or drawing a picture to say thank you to the firefighters. You can model how to be a loving human who cares deeply about what’s going on and help your kids be part of the solution. Invite your children to do something to help those affected by the disaster, this will help them process what is happening and empower them with a sense of community and confidence.
What to do if you have a concern
Robina First is passionate about supporting mental health in young children. If your child is showing signs of distress or increased anxiety please come in and have a chat to our educators or you can contact me directly.
Resources that might help
- This video from ABC’s Behind the News explains the bushfires in Australia through the eyes of school children, using safe images and language that is easy to understand.
- You can also use stories about bushfires such as this one developed by the Queensland Government (available in English, Arabic, Burmese, Mandarin and Samoan) to help you start a conversation.
- Fire and Rescue NSW have a great fire escape plan resource