Talking to kids about the Australian bushfire crisis

7 January 2020

Talking to kids about the Australian bushfire crisis

  • Wellbeing
by Michael Grose

This Australian summer is a bushfire season like no other. It feels as if the whole country is burning. Landscapes the size of European countries have been burnt. Evacuees from bushfire zones are measured in the hundreds of thousands; the loss to livestock and native fauna is now in the tens of millions, and the losses to homes and to people’s livelihoods continues to grow by the day. The scale of these fires is difficult to comprehend however their impact is evident for everyone to see – shock, anxiety, sadness, fear and anger are some emotions on display.

Children and young people are not immune to the impact of these fires. As a parent it can be difficult to know how to help your children to process what they are seeing and experiencing. Here are some guiding principles to help ensure your child is not unduly stressed by this bushfire catastrophe:

Ensure feelings of safety

Children can be faulty interpreters of information so be prepared to assist them to process what they see and hear. For instance, some children may see the current smoke haze that’s covering much of our southern cities and believe the fires are close at hand. Alternatively, they may discern through the constant images of fire through the media that the fires are closer to them than they really are. Help children understand the reality of the situation in a level manner without underplaying its impact on others.

Communicate at your child’s level

When talking about the bushfires use language and concepts that are easy to explain and also easy for your child to understand. A six-year-old may be satisfied knowing that a large fire is burning a long way away however a sixteen-year-old may want to know about weather patterns, fire zones, watch and act scenarios are other higher level concepts before they can feel safe and secure.

Listen to what they have to say

Gauge children’s emotional reactions by listening to what they have to say. Sometimes children can feel distressed, unhappy, sad or scared yet they can’t connect it to a specific event. You don’t necessarily need to make a link but understand that their feelings are real.

Monitor the media your children access

Children under the age of six can be frightened by images and stories they see and hear on the TV news so it’s probably best to keep the TV turned off at news time. Older children and teens are more able to cope with disturbing images but they may not fully understand what they see. They also generally want to know what’s happening and can feel more of a sense of control when they can learn first hand the latest fire news. Common sense and sensitivity are your best assets when it comes to monitoring children and the media.

Monitor your own responses

Children and young people usually take their cues from their parents about how they should react to a wide range of events including natural disasters so be aware of your own responses to the fires. Generally, children feel safe and secure when their parents are calm and in control so keep a lid on those high emotions when you’re around kids.

Take action

Helping others overcomes our feelings of helplessness in the face of tragedy or catastrophic events. Look for ways that kids can help whether it’s donating some pocket money to one of the various bushfire appeals, helping one of the many localised action groups that have sprung up everywhere or even assisting you to minimise the possible impact of bushfires in your own community.

Teach anxiety management techniques

The magnitude of the bushfires can be the cause of anxiety for many children. Introduce your child or young person to anxiety management techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness and other simple relaxation techniques. Remember that being close to someone who makes them feel safe can also lower a child’s anxiety.

Times like we are experiencing now can be difficult for everyone. By using these principles you can help your child feel safe and reduce the likelihood of anxiety and distress in this increasingly difficult summer.

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Michael Grose

Michael Grose, founder of Parenting Ideas, is one of Australia’s leading parenting educators. He’s the author of 12 books for parents including Spoonfed Generation and the best-selling Why First Borns Rule the World and Last Borns Want to Change It. His latest release Anxious Kids, was co-authored with Dr Jodi Richardson.