I have interrupted our usual topics in these weekly emails to talk about child well-being and bushfires, as of course this is an urgent concern and distress for many parents/caregivers in Australia at the moment, and also for yourselves as professionals working with children.
I know that many of our members – particularly those who live in the Gippsland regions, KI, Adelaide Hills – as well as others – have been significantly impacted by fires, with some of you experiencing massive stress, trauma and fear. I’m so sorry for what you and your children have experienced. All of us at Developing Minds have been feeling distressed and worried for those families directly affected around Australia, especially our CKC members.
I also know that many other of our families who have not been directly impacted by fires, also have children who are experiencing stress and anxiety as they watch the news, are affected by smoke or hear conversations by their friends and family. Children with existing emotional health challenges are sometimes particularly impacted by this anxiety, as it adds “one more thing” to their existing worries.
There have been many excellent guides published by various organisations about how to talk with children about fires, what to say and how to help them. Rather than recreate these here, I’ve included links to a few of the best I’ve seen at the end of this article so you can print out and give to families as you see fit.
The guides are of course generic and include ideas which are likely to be helpful most of the time. However when I am talking directly to parents/caregivers about this, I remind them that different children, in different situations need different approaches. I tell them, as always – as parents/caregivers you are the expert on your own child. so you should feel free to choose the ideas which you think might be most helpful for you.
In terms of how we as professionals work with children who are anxious about fires, here are some key ideas which might be helpful (many of these are similar to the ideas provided to parents/caregivers)
- Allow children to talk and express their feelings (not “shutting down” conversations) as they arise
- If a parent/caregiver tells us that their child is talking about or showing their fear or stress about fires, we might ask the child a few short questions about what they are most worried about or what they think
- We might help children talk about their worries through drawing, puppet role plays, making up stories (with us as writer/actor)
- We can children that their thoughts, feelings and stress reactions are normal and tell them many children we talk to feel the same way
- We can work with families to provide reassurance (information about why they are safe and how they will be kept safe in the future) – correcting misunderstandings where possible. Often this information can be helpful if in writing or drawing form, so children can refer to it later rather than trying to recall it.
- Helping children notice “the helpers”, and how people/our society are working to repair, help and keep life safer in the future.
- Support families to provide affection, warmth and comfort when children are feeling anxious
- Help families to continue to allow children to express their worries or sadness using drawing or playing at home if they seem interested in doing this
- Help families to know not to frequently or unnecessarily raise the conversation with children unless they believe they are thinking/talking about the topic already
- Help families to limit exposure where possible to graphic images and extensive news coverage (keeping an eye on what they are accessing online/youtube etc)
- Talk with parents/caregivers and children to have a plan for children to redirect their attention to other activities if they appear to be wanting to talk excessively about the topic (Let’s take a break from talking about…..)
- Help families provide normal (or “new normal” if “normal” is not possible) schedules and activity if children have been directly fire impacted
- Give children a sense of hope and change for the future
We are currently starting work on a couple of videos for children who have been fire impacted. In the meantime, we have a short activity sheet for children who are expressing worry, stress or sadness about fires. It is designed for children aged 6 to 10, will take them about 10 minutes and should be done with an adult (ie either yourself as a professional, or a parent/caregiver) present to talk with them about what they are drawing/writing and to help them answer the questions on the activity sheet. Please look through the activity sheet before you start it with a child and decide which/what you think would be helpful for your child – as some of it might be more or less helpful for different children.