By Dr Justin CoulsonWednesday 15 Jan 2020
The ongoing bushfires around Australia are extraordinary. We’ve all seen them. Too many have experienced them or had close encounters, either personally or through a friend or loved one.
Homes, lives, animals, environment – so much gone. No matter where you live in this country, you’ve been affected.
So, too, have our children. How do we help them to feel reassured when they witness so much that can stoke fear and insecurity?
For our children need to thrive, it is important that they feel their world is safe and predictable. As adults, we know that it’s often not, but…our children need to believe that it is. It is our job, as parents, to instil that belief.
That’s why it’s important to take care when talking to our children about traumatic events. We want to be able to talk about what’s happening, without making it worse.
This article is for parents whose children are NOT directly affected by bushfires.
How do we help our children understand what’s going on, particularly when many of us may have limited depth of understanding ourselves?
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For Younger Children
Here’s the good news: children who are younger than about six years of age probably won’t be particularly interested. They might see something that troubles them on the news, have a basic question or two, and that’s about all. If they do come to you with a question, answer it honestly, but succinctly, then allow them to move on when they feel ready. In almost all cases, your child won’t be concerned any longer. And because they don’t really understand, it’s best to shield them from exposure to the trauma as much as you can. Keep the news turned off so they don’t see it.
For Older Children
Curious or concerned?
Children between the ages of six and 12 can comprehend and recognise that the country is reeling, and these older children may have more questions than our little ones. When they come to us, they will either be curious or concerned.
You’ll know your child is curious by her tone. Curiosity is active, energised, and inquisitive. Children who are curious will ask “why”, “what”, “where”, “when” and “how” questions that are less about emotion and more about facts. Answer their questions truthfully, but don’t give them too much. When someone wants a drink, we turn on the tap, not the firehose. Limit information to what is appropriate for their age and understanding.
Children who are concerned need more. Their questions stem from a desire to understand and be reassured. They may still ask similar sounding questions, but there will be an undercurrent of worry and apprehension. Their energy will be lower as they ponder the unpleasantness of the circumstances we are experiencing. And for our concerned children, they want to know that even if the world is unsafe and unpredictable, their world is safe and predictable.
When you answer their questions you might say, ‘Seeing those people running from the fires – stranded on the beaches – it makes you feel awful, doesn’t it’. Or, ‘Don’t you wish these awful things didn’t happen. Like if there was some special super-hero who could just put out all the fires, save all the animals, and make everyone safe’.
These responses show our children that we understand. They help them feel that even if the world isn’t safe all the time, their world is because we are there for them.
Our job isn’t to solve the issue. It’s to let our children know we understand.
Giving hope is the next step. We do that by sharing stories of people doing incredible things in the midst of the awfulness.
Mr Rogers’ famous quote always springs to mind at times like this. He says, ‘When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”’
Share stories of the helpers with your children. Tell them about Celeste Barber raising $50+ million dollars for relief funding. Tell them about the woman who saved a koala from the burning bushland by wrapping it in her shirt and pouring water over it. Tell them about the children who are having lemonade stands to raise money.
Then empower them by asking them what they can do to help. Maybe they’d like to have a lemonade stand or a cake stall and donate the proceeds to the volunteer firefighters. Doing something helps our children feel better and recognise that they are no powerless victims. They can make a difference.
When you disagree
For parents of older children, you might find that sometimes questions lead to disagreements. Maybe your child has opinions that you find jarring (one of you might be a climate fanatic and the other a climate sceptic). Maybe your child is extremely disdainful of the government or particular leaders.
You might be tempted to say something like, ‘What would you know? You’re only 13!’ That will only put distance between you and your child at a really difficult time.
The best approach is to get curious, not furious. Say, ‘You have some really strong feelings about this. Tell me more about that.’ Opening up a dialogue with your child fosters understanding and closeness even when you don’t agree. Get curious, not furious.
If you’ve been directly affected by the bushfires
It is normal to have strong emotional or physical reactions following a distressing event. But you don’t have to go through it alone. If you and your children have been directly affected by the bushfires and are feeling anxious, scared or depressed, seek professional help. A professional can help you and your children weather these trying times.
Article supplied with thanks to Happy Families.
About the Author: A sought after public speaker and author, and former radio broadcaster, Justin has a psychology degree from the University of Queensland and a PhD in psychology from the University of Wollongong.