Australia’s devastating bushfires have affected many families across Victoria. For children directly affected by bushfires this can be an extremely distressing and confusing time, and many parents are at a loss with how to best help their children. Many feel as if their lives have changed forever, and helping your child through this fearful time is a confronting task for many families.
Impact of trauma
Children of all ages – even babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers in bushfire areas will notice the changed air quality, landscape, the upset and worry of parents and other adults as well as having their own experiences of loss of homes, pets etc. They are naturally observant and are always trying to make sense of how the world works. This wish to understand means that children will be very receptive to the help parents offer them to cope with the bushfire crisis.
People cope with trauma in many different ways, and your child may be responding to this disaster very differently to you. Children are not able to express emotions in the same way that adults do, so many express their emotions through behaviour instead. It is important to be mindful of your child’s needs during this time and the most important thing you can do is spend time with them, reassure them that you are here, and look after yourself, so that you are able to then care for your child. If you do need to leave your child, even briefly, tell them where you are going, who will look after them while you’re not there, how long you will be away and when you will return.
Children are usually very resilient, so many will recover gradually over time with support from their families. Reactions to the trauma of the bushfires may result in:
- changes to play, drawing or dreams
- regressive behaviour – children behaving younger than normal
- anxiety about separating from parents or sleeping alone
- anger, irritability or tantrums
- trouble getting to sleep
- fussing eating
- withdrawal or trouble concentrating
How do I help my child?
There are many ways as parents that you can help your child through this time. Children will not have the same ability to draw on previous coping strategies that adults do, and a bushfire disrupts not only their immediately lives, but the community they live in, the school they attended, and all of the adults around them. This makes it harder to find normality, and feel that things will be ok, and can often leave children feeling helpless.
Parents can help in many ways:
- help your child name their feelings and reassure them that whatever they feel is ok, and that everyone is feeling sad, angry, lost etc. now. These strong feelings make sense after a big event. Provide them with lots of reassurance and cuddles and just being available to them is one of the best things you can do as a parent
- give your child opportunities to regain a sense of control and choice. This will help to reduce feelings of helplessness (even if it is a choice about what to eat or wear that day)
- help to re-establish as much daily routine as you can in the aftermath
- find out what they know about the fires and correct any misconceptions using age-appropriate explanations, especially if they blame themselves for something. Answer questions honestly. Talking about the fires will not make things worse for them. Explain what you are doing to keep them safe
- younger children need reassurance and simple, truthful explanations about the situation. Toddlers notice and understand more than they can express in words
- reduce exposure to your adult worries. Children pick up many things from adult conversations, the news and people around them, and often fill in the blanks with big imaginations. Try to limit conversations about finances, insurance etc. around your child. Limit exposure to the news to avoid re-traumatisation
- children will take cues from the adults around them. Focus on things that haven’t changed in their lives by naming their friends and telling their favourite stories
- build narratives around your family that acknowledge both hard and happy times, and that your family has skills to manage difficulties. Talk about skills you have used in the past to cope with difficulties, as well as the strengths of your family
- if your child acts defiantly, lies, tantrums or refuses to sleep, don’t punish them for this behaviour, but focus on soothing strategies and cuddles to help them calm down their over-alert bodies. Spend time connecting with them on things they enjoy, and being around for calming activities
- give your child extra attention. Be alert for changes in behaviours that don’t settle down, and realise that reactions such as bed wetting or tantrums may be a symptom of trauma
- enlist your child’s support system as soon as possible. Link them back to their community, extended family, friends etc. through social media and Skype if they are now physically separated because of the fires
- If you have been involved in an evacuation it can be helpful to draw a simple picture of the sequence of events with an accompanying narrative.
- Children may be worried about parents or relatives who are fighting the fires. It can be helpful to remind them that the parent has trained with the CFA or that there are teams of firefighters with trained leaders.
- It might be helpful to give some context of Australia as a country with experience dealing with bushfires to foster a sense of hope and recovery, referencing locations familiar to the children that have previously suffered bushfires and now look like other towns
The task of getting your family back on track may feel overwhelming at times. The simple tasks of being available to your children and not avoiding discussions about their emotions, or how you are coping, can be the most powerful support for them. For further information and support, please visit Better Health Channel, the Red Cross and Phoenix Australia.