Children and bushfires: tips for helping children deal with trauma

The media is saturated with coverage of the bushfires across Australia. Even if children have not directly experienced the fires, they may be distressed by images of deceased animals, burning landscapes and talk of fatalities, particularly if they live in areas of bushfire risk. You may be wondering how to talk to your children about the fires. We’ve compiled some suggestions below.

Depending on their age and other factors, children may not be able to identify that they’ve been affected by the bushfires. These signs may emerge weeks or months after the fires, so it’s important for caregivers to stay vigilant.

Some signs your child may be distressed

  • Complaining of physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches
  • Change to sleeping or eating patterns
  • Not wanting to be separated from caregivers
  • Appearing tightly wound and quick to anger
  • Experiencing nightmares
  • Becoming overwhelmed by sensory stimulation

Things that can help

  • Minimise social media/television/radio so children are not bombarded with bushfire stories and imagery.
  • Engage with your children’s concerns. Children may be unable to articulate their experience of trauma or what they need. This is normal. Ask them questions, encourage them to name their emotions and validate those emotions. For instance: “It’s okay to feel frightened. It’s frightening”.
  • If children are unable to name feelings or their concerns, that’s okay too. Engage with them however you can – this might be colouring, dancing or playing games.
  • Correct any misinformation about the fires. Children are unlikely to have an accurate understanding of bushfires and may illogically blame themselves. Unpack what your child understands about the bushfires and gently correct any misinformation.
  • Get them involved with recovery efforts. This might include fundraising, donating clothes and toys, writing letters to politicians or making thank you gifts for local CFA volunteers.
  • If you live in a bushfire danger zone, highlight the things you’re doing to keep yourselves and house safe. Explain your bushfire plan to your children in an age appropriate way. For instance: “This is why we go to grandma’s when it’s very hot.”
  • Take care of yourself. Make sure you’re sleeping and eating as well as possible. See friends, get out in the fresh air and reach out for help if you need it.
  • Take care of your children’s physical needs. Lots of sleep, exercise and healthy food are all protective factors against feelings of distress.
  • Empower your children in small ways. Let them choose what they’re having for dinner or decide whether to have a shower or a bath.
  • Maintain routines where possible. Routines and boundaries are comforting for children. Maintain usual meal times and bedtime routines.
  • While open communication is important, don’t rely emotionally on your children if you’re distressed. Children should never be responsible for the emotional needs of their parents.
  • Cuddle your child. Play with them. Spend time with them.

You can donate to the CFA bushfire appeal here.

If you’re concerned about your children’s mental state, you can ask your GP for a referral call 1800 333 497 to locate a psychologist.