When catastrophic bushfires hit Australia, they make headlines around the world. You can’t walk past a news stand, put on the TV or radio, or scroll through social media without seeing images of red hot flames bursting out of bushland, injured animals being rescued or towns burned to the ground.
In times of crisis like this, many adults feeling anxious, scared and affected by the ongoing crisis, it’s only natural that children will also be feeling worried and start asking questions.
So, what’s the best way to emotionally support your children, to help them cope and feel safe when it feels like the world is falling down around you?
Remember children respond differently to disasters
That is – differently to you as an adult, but also differently to each other. Some may react with changes in their behaviour, such as acting out, becoming withdrawn, clingy, easily irritated, on-edge or frightened. You may notice a change in their sleeping or eating patterns, or the emergence of new physical complaints, such as stomach aches or headaches.
A child’s needs will vary depending on their age and how much they understand of what they see.
How to talk to children about Australia’s bushfire emergencies
In the same way that you would teach your children about water safety or how to behave around dangerous snakes and spiders, it is important to help them understand how to manage the threat of bushfires.
This should not be a fear-inducing conversation, but quite the opposite. Teaching children how to protect themselves in times of danger is an empowering lesson, but should also be part of everyday life. If you, as the adult, show confidence that there are processes we can all follow to protect ourselves from danger, children will feel confident too, when they understand those processes.
Ask them what they are worried about
If you notice a change in your child’s behaviour as described above, it is important to ask them what they are worried about.
Ask them if they would like to talk about what is worrying them – remember, some children may find it difficult to express how they feel. Don’t push them, just reaffirm that they can talk to you about anything, anytime.
If your child does want to talk, speak to them in a way that is open and appropriate for their age. Listen to what they say in a non-judgemental way (always remembering that some children don’t have ways of understanding what is going on, and can be vulnerable to feelings of anxiety, stress and sadness). Show them you understand how they are feeling and that it is perfectly natural to be feeling that way.
Help children to recognise unhelpful thoughts and feelings
While talking to your child, try to identify when they are having unhelpful thoughts or feelings and then teach them to use more helpful alternatives, whilst remaining honest.
For example, if your child says “I’m scared something bad is going to happen,” you could encourage your child to think differently about the situation, for example “it’s hot today and I’m feeling a little scared, but I know we have a plan to help us stay safe as a family.” Then discuss together what that plan is. Or if appropriate, devise the plan together and write it down to reaffirm it.
Outside of the fire season, always involve your children in preparing and updating your fire safety / evacuation plan. Giving them a role in this provides a feeling of ownership and can help grow their self-confidence.
Tell your children you love them and reassure them that you are prepared. Remind them that you have a plan in place to keep everyone safe and discuss with them how the plan will work. Remember also that many children are resilient and have a strong natural ability to adapt to challenging events.
Try to manage your own reactions – your children will be looking to you to know they are safe and will model their coping strategies from yours. Try circular breathing to calm your nerves. This is where having a bushfire plan in place is doubly beneficial – not just to help give your children confidence, but to instil confidence in yourself too.
Sharing positive news stories can help both you and your children to maintain hope during times of crisis. Discuss the acts of bravery, generosity and kindness from ordinary people trying to help families impacted by the bushfires. Share stories of volunteer firefighters, community leaders and every day Australians showing compassion. Work together to come up with ways you can also help to raise money or awareness, volunteer or donate.
And most importantly, if you are lucky enough to not be directly effected by bushfires, don’t forget to take time out and have fun. Spend time at the beach, play in the park, enjoy a board game. Have fun with your kids over summer and show them that despite the bushfires, they are safe, life continues, and you are there for them.
Language you can use to talk to children about bushfires
“Every time something like this happens, we learn how to stay safer. We learn how things like this happen, so we can stop it happening again.”
“I can hear how worried you are. What is happening is scary, but you are safe. There are so many people who feel exactly the way you do. You aren’t alone – I promise.”
“We’ve prepared a fire safety plan, so we know exactly what to do in an emergency. Shall we read over it and practise it together?”
Children will always surprise you
Remember that children are inherently resilient and hopeful and will benefit from having open and supportive discussions about bushfires. Talking to children openly in a way that suits their age, whilst also involving them in decisions and actions regarding bushfire preparation and response, will help them to feel emotionally secure and confident.
More resources and additional help
If you have concerns about whether your child is coping, or they are displaying worrying signs of being negatively affected by the impact of bushfires, or you feel you are not coping, Better Health Victoria has a list of people and organisations that can provide further support at the end of this article.