11 ways parents can help children cope with fires

With brush and wildfires becoming more common in Southern California and many other parts of the world, it’s understandable that children may experience emotional distress, even if their home is not physically affected.

Here are 11 tips from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network and CHOC experts that can help parents and caregivers support kids in coping with fires:

  1. Know these responses are common. Children may feel additional fear and anxiety during a fire – and even long after it is extinguished. Separation anxiety is common, and children may show changes in appetite, school performance and mood. Older children may show an increased likelihood for self-harm and younger children may exhibit regressive behaviors, or showing behaviors they used when they were younger.
  2. Limit media exposure. Monitor children’s media consumption – on television, newspapers, radio and social media. Images of burning buildings or the aftermath of a fire could be frightening to children, as could reading or hearing accounts of the fire. Learn more about the importance of monitoring your child’s news and social media intake.
  3. Monitor adult chatter. Remember that children can overhear conversations between their parents and other adults. They might also misinterpret this information, or be afraid of something they don’t understand. Keep conversations in front of children light and save heavier discussions for private.
  4. Encourage open communication. Children may have questions about the fires – and they may ask them multiple times. Encourage kids of all ages to ask these questions as many times as they need. Use this time to address any misinformation your child might have picked up at school or elsewhere.
  5. Provide age-appropriate information. Limit the information that you provide to your child to the questions that they ask you, to avoid overwhelming them with information that they may not already have been exposed to. Keep in mind their age and emotional maturity when answering.
  6. Remind your children that they are safe. Share your family’s plan to keep safe. Show them where your smoke detectors are located; teach and remind them what to do if those alarms go off. Also, remind children that firefighters and other emergency personnel are working hard to protect them and their homes.
  7. Maintain routines and expectations. Routines are essential to helping children feel safe and secure. Stick to regular schedules, mealtimes and bedtimes as best as possible and ensure children get enough rest, nutrition and exercise. Try to stick to family rules around practicing good behavior, respect and kindness, as well as other family norms, to keep a sense of normalcy.
  8. Increase your patience. Even with routines and rules still in place, practicing flexibility and patience will be key. Distressed or distracted children might need help or additional reminders about chores and responsibilities.
  9. Provide additional support at bedtime. Fears and anxiety could be heightened at bedtime. To avoid your child developing separation anxiety, try to spend more time with them doing light, peaceful activities like reading a book or singing songs. If a child needs to sleep with their caregiver, it’s OK. Just be clear that typical sleeping arrangements will resume in the future.
  10. Model behavior. A parent’s crisis response will significantly influence how children respond. Remember to take care of yourself as well by eating well, sleeping well and exercising. Support your partner or other adults in your life, and, if possible, delay making any hasty decisions during a stressful time.
  11. Read a book. Your child may feel more comfortable opening up about their feelings over the fire by reading a book where the characters experience a fire as well. “Trinka and Sam: The Big Fire” is available for download in English and also available for download in Spanish from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Many of the above reactions are normal after children are exposed to something traumatic like a fire. Parents may wonder at what point their child needs further support from their pediatrician or  mental health provider. Generally if these responses continue more often than not for over two weeks and interfere with normal activities —such as school — or with sleeping or eating, then it may be time to reach out to your child’s doctor or a therapist.

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Helping Children Cope with Tragedy

It’s hard for grownups to make sense of a tragedy, so consider how difficult it must be for children.

Depending on their age and media exposure, children may know more than grownups think. And even if unaware, children still might sense tension and anxiety from adults around them.

Mental Health America has offered these ways that parents can help their children cope with tragedy-related anxiety:Dad comforting child

Quick tips for parents

  • Children need comforting and frequent reassurance of their safety.
  • Be honest and open about the tragedy or disaster.
  • Encourage children to express their feelings through talking, drawing or playing.
  • Try to maintain your daily routines as much as possible.

Preschool-aged children

  • Reassure young children that they’re safe. Provide extra comfort and contact by discussing the child’s fears at night, telephoning during the day, and providing extra physical comfort.
  • Get a better understanding of a child’s feelings about the tragedy. Discuss the events with them and find out their fears and concerns. Answer all questions they may ask and provide them loving comfort and care.
  • Structure children’s play so that it remains constructive, serving as an outlet for them to express fear or anger.

Grade school-aged children

  • Answer questions in clear and simple language.
  • False reassurance does not help this age group. Don’t say that tragedies will never happen again; children know this isn’t true. Instead, remind children that tragedies are rare, and say “You’re safe now, and I’ll always try to protect you,” or “Adults are working very hard to make things safe.”
  • Children’s fears often worsen around bedtime, so stay until the child falls asleep so he or she feels protected.
  • Monitor children’s media viewing. Images of the tragedy are extremely frightening to children, so consider limiting the amount of media coverage they see.
  • Allow children to express themselves through play or drawing, and then talk to them about it. This gives you the chance to “retell” the ending of the game or the story they have expressed in pictures with an emphasis on personal safety.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” Part of keeping discussion of the tragedy open and honest is not being afraid to say you don’t know how to answer a child’s question. When such an occasion arises, explain to your child that tragedies cause feelings that even adults have trouble dealing with. Temper this by explaining that adults will still always work hard to keep children safe and secure.

MomComfortGirl  Adolescents

  •  Adolescents may try to downplay their worries, so encourage them to work out their concerns about the tragedy.
  • Children with existing emotional problems such as depression may require careful supervision and additional support.
  • Monitor their media exposure to the event and information they receive on the Internet.
  • Adolescents may turn to their friends for support. Encourage friends and families to get together and discuss the event to allay fears.

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