One of the first steps is building a go kit for your kids. We covered the basics of building a kit last week. Make sure they pack toys or important items to them in their go kit as well. Those items will help quite a bit if you and your family are evacuated to a shelter. Download your family’s own Wildfire Action Guide.
Talking and planning with our kids when discussing evacuation can be difficult but below are few ideas for you as a parent.
How to Talk to Kids about Wildfires
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, honest reassurance is what children need to hear. The Academy urges parents to talk to their kids before their family faces a natural disaster. These conversations can be difficult, as they touch on fears we avoid. The following suggestions should ease your dialogue and soothe worried minds.
Explore “What’s Important?” Ask your crew what toys or treasures they really want to have if they had to leave home suddenly. Let them know your priorities. Talk about ways the family would become a team, gathering clothes, medicine, packing the car. Ideally, have this conversation prior to wildfire season.
Be Prepared. Take your kids on a “Fire Chief’s Tour” through the garage or around the yard in search of highly flammable items- the lawn mower, shelves of used paints, a case of motor oil. Look for places to store them away from wind-blown sparks. Explain that when wildfires threaten fire experts recommend removing all volatile flammables from the property, most likely in a vehicle far from harm’s way. Point out trees and shrubs growing close to your home, suggesting, “Let’s be fire-safe and trim them.”
Remain calm and reassuring, but be realistic. It’s fine to tell your kids they are safe in their homes. But you can’t promise that a wildfire will never scorch it.
Be honest. When faced with evacuating your home, let your child know there’s a chance fire will burn all or part of it. But add, “Firefighters know what makes a wildfire grow and will do their best to keep it away from our house.” Even if your family is not wildfire threatened, talk to your crew about how they might feel when forced to leave their home.
Create opportunities for your child to ask questions. The unusually quiet child may be burning with fears or misunderstandings. Let him know you too have questions about the fire, opening a dialogue that calms both of you.
Talk about “Brave” events in your child’s life. Remind him of the time he and his sister took a plane to grandma’s “all by themselves.” The time she didn’t cry when the doctor put a cast on her arm. Such courage-reminding conversations will instill their self-confidence regardless of the fire threat.
Use age-appropriate words and information. A 4-year-old will understand that “firefighters have stopped some of the fire” while his 14-year-old sister will comprehend “it’s 15% contained.”
Be prepared to repeat your explanations. It may be a child’s need to hear your reassurance again, or perhaps she’s having difficulty understanding or accepting the information.
Help your child express himself in other ways. Provide drawing materials, allow plenty of free play with toys, read imaginative stories. During stressful times children need to communicate, often in ways that surprise you.
Let kids know they’re not alone. Tell your kids there are many people helping families when something scary happens. Talk about the special “helpers” that will provide them a bed to sleep in, food to eat and plenty of toys.
Avoid excess media coverage. All your reassurances may be dispelled when your child sees television images of a wildfire consuming a home. Instead, point out news of families helping other families in times of crisis.
Encourage participation in support efforts. During a wildfire communities typically rally to provide immediate comforts for families and firefighters. Have your kids donate a toy or bring canned foods to the rescue center, so they get to feel they’re a part of the firefighting effort.
Remember, “Kids will be Kids.” Regardless of smoky skies, helicopters thundering overhead and the constant onslaught of “fire updates,” let your kids play, perhaps the best therapy for all of us.
Helping Children Cope – Ages 11+
Responding to an emergency is one thing …what’s the best way to respond to your child during or after a disaster?
For many kids, reactions to disasters are brief. But some children can be at risk for more enduring psychological distress. Three risk factors for this longer-lasting response are:
Direct exposure to the disaster such as being evacuated, observing injuries of others, or experiencing injury
Loss/grief relating to the death or serious injury of family or friends
On-going stress from secondary effects, such as temporary housing, loss of social networks, loss of personal property, or parent’s unemployment
Disasters can leave children and teens feeling frightened, confused and insecure. And kids’ responses can be quite varied. It’s important to not only recognize these reactions but also help children cope with their emotions.
You are their biggest influence. When you can manage your own feelings, you can make disasters less traumatic for your kids.
• Encourage dialogue. Listen to your kids. Ask them about their feelings. Validate their concerns.
• Answer questions. Give just the amount of information you feel your child needs. Clarify misunderstandings about risk and danger.
• Be calm, be reassuring. Discuss concrete plans for safety. Have children and teens contribute to the family’s recovery plan.
• Shut off the TV! News coverage of disasters creates confusion and anxiety. Repeated images may lead younger kids to believe the event is recurring. If your children do watch TV or use the Internet, be with them to talk and answer questions.
• Find support. Whether you turn to friends, family, community organizations or faith-based institutions, building support networks can help you cope, which will, in turn, help your children cope.
Parent Questions from other disasters around the nation:
Ever since wildfires threatened our community and forced us to evacuate, my 14-year-old daughter has been acting out. How can I make it stop?
It can be hard to distinguish between normal teen behavior and anxiety from a traumatic event. Kids don’t always talk openly about their feelings; instead, they may seem irritable or forgetful. They may also withdraw or have difficulties concentrating at school. That doesn’t mean they don’t need to talk. Keep the lines of communication open without forcing it. Casually bring up the subject and say something like, “I’ve been thinking about those fires all day. Do you ever think about it?” And if your teen really can’t open up to you (which can be typical for teens), try to find another trusted adult she can confide in.
Our town was hit hard by a local wildfire and our home was damaged. But all my son can talk about are his friends and how rough they have it. Any advice?
Teenagers are very concerned with their friends and social lives. But underneath what may be a genuine concern for others may also be a fear for his own safety and security. He just can’t express it. Talking with him about his friends may be a good way to start a conversation about your family and your son’s feelings. Focus on his friends’ strength and resiliency. Point out other communities that have been hit hard but have overcome disasters. And find ways for him to pitch in – whether at home or in the community. Having a job to do will help him feel in control, and thus more secure.
In a recent wildfire and we lost power. It could be days before we get electricity again. My 12-year-old keeps asking, “When will it come back on?” How do I answer her?
“Hopefully soon. Let’s talk about what we can do in the meantime.” Even though they’re getting older, teens still need reassurance that everything will be okay. And they need to talk about their feelings. So keep those lines of communication open and enlist their help – whether its helping their siblings or some neighbors. The more children participate in helping, the more in control they will feel.
A wildfire tore through our town. People lost their homes and some their jobs…life is not normal. How do I know if my 16-year-old is okay?
Teens often say more with their actions than words. After an upsetting event, they could be irritable, clingy, withdrawn or even forgetful. There may even be changes in eating and sleeping. Don’t get angry if they can’t focus on homework, or talk back. Instead, keep the lines of communication open by asking how they’re feeling, or if they ever think about the wildfire. And then find ways that they can help others – whether it’s helping in the evacuation shelter, or organizing a food drive. Helping can be incredibly healing and empowering.
There’s an evacuation notice for our neighborhood in effect and all we hear about on TV and the radio. My kids are getting scared. Any advice?
Turn off the TV. This advice holds true for children of all ages. Unless you need to see coverage of the wildfire for safety reasons (in which case, try not to do it in view of children) turn off the TV and radio. This is especially true after a wildfire when scary images may be shown repeatedly. Young children may think the event is happening over and over and this can be terrifying. Giving them a job helps them feel in control, which reduces their anxiety.
I’m dealing with the aftermath of a severe wildfire in our town. My child’s room is a total disaster. Clothes are piled on the dresser, he sleeps with every toy on his bed, and I just found a bag of candy in his closet. How can I make him understand that I need him to be on his best behavior?
Ask him if he’s worried about another wildfire. Kids often prepare for danger in their own way, without talking about what they are doing. While his behavior may seem irrational, it sounds like your son may be preparing for another event – saving his toys, and building his own emergency kit (albeit, an unhealthy one!) Ask him about his concerns, and enlist his help in preparing a better emergency kit. (Click on “Build Your Own Go Kit” and enlist his help in creating go kits for himself and the family or pets.) He’ll feel good knowing that he is helping the family.