Psychotherapist has tips on what to tell kids about wildfire
Post Independent intern
Parents of children who have experienced trauma, are acting out aggressively or are withdrawing should call the Aspen Hope Center at 925-5858 or visit Aspen Strong online at aspenstrong.org.
As the Lake Christine fire continues to burn near Basalt, it’s uprooted hundreds of families and support has come from every corner of the valley. Most of these offers come in the form of food, shelter and more food, but the Aspen Hope Center and Aspen Strong want parents to be aware of the resources available for helping children cope with the changes sparked by the wildfire.
Psychotherapist Resa Hayes of Aspen Hope Center is also board president of Aspen Strong. She created a step-by-step list to help parents communicate with their children about the fire. This guide is also available in Spanish.
“Our children, just like us, wonder about safety, belongings, animals and friends. We can help our kids by giving them a better understanding of wildfires, their place in the world and how this disaster, in particular, is being handled,” Hayes wrote.
Children have likely heard conversations about the disaster or even been directly affected by it, Hayes wrote, and there are ways of communicating with them that will ease their minds.
“Please don’t just assume your child is doing well, or that you can protect them from the fear we are all experiencing,” Hayes wrote.
She has gathered some tips for how parents can effectively educate their children without raising their fear and concerns:
Don’t shy away from having a conversation with your children about the fire. Arrange a time that you can engage in a conversation with them, uninterrupted and without distraction. An easy conversation starter can be, “I bet you have some questions about the fire and I would really like to hear them. Can we sit down and talk about it a bit?”
Assess what your child already knows (or doesn’t know)
Before talking to your child, ask him or her questions to help you understand what he or she already knows. This will help you understand his or her concerns, questions, feelings and misconceptions.
Listen to your child’s questions with curiosity rather than with the urge to immediately soothe
Children will likely have many questions when a natural disaster occurs. “How does a wildfire happen? What happened to the people living in El Jebel and Basalt? Will it happen to us? When will our house be safe?”
When you answer, use a calm, reassuring voice. Use simple, clear, constant language. After answering, check in with your child to make sure he or she understood. If necessary, try different, but still concrete, easy-to-understand language until your child grasps the concept.
Normalize the curiosity and concern
Say things like, “I can understand why you would want to know that. That’s a good question. Let me try to help you understand it a bit more.” Let them know that their questions are appropriate and important.
Be prepared to repeat information and explanations several times. Some information may be hard to accept or understand. Asking the same question over and over may also be a way for a child to ask for reassurance.
Reassure your child to help him/her feel safe
Inform your child of your family’s safety plan in case of a wildfire. Having fire drills once per year can also reassure your child that if another fire were to occur, he or she would be safe.
You can also discuss the skill, courage and commitment that our firefighters and safety personnel have displayed. “Last night the fire was very dangerous and the firefighters were still able to keep our community safe. They will continue to do so. They are working right now to predict what needs to happen next to keep us safe. They are experts at their jobs and Mom and Dad trust them.”
If you seem panicked or anxious, your child is likely to react in similar ways. Model a calm, matter-of-fact demeanor to show your child that your family is safe.
If you need support yourself, don’t be afraid to reach out to family and friends. It can be helpful to have this kind of separate space to discuss your own emotions.
Some parents may want to keep some information from their children to protect them. They might say, for example, “The fire didn’t hurt anything,” or, “The fire was always under control.” Your child could hear details elsewhere. This could confuse your children and lead them to conclude that they cannot trust what you say.
If you do not know the answer to a question, do not hesitate to tell your child. You can even look for answers together, which can also help your child feel safe and comforted.
Explore your child’s feelings and provide validation and comfort
Children may feel a variety of emotions, such as fear, confusion, anxiety, guilt and sadness. Some children may not openly want to talk about their feelings, but that does not necessarily mean they are not thinking about the fire. When your child shares his or her feelings with you, provide empathy, acknowledgment and validation.
In an effort to comfort their children, some parents may inadvertently minimize a child’s feelings by saying things like, “You have nothing to be scared of.” A better alternative is to empathize with his or her feelings first, and then offer reassurance.
One example is, “I can understand why you would be scared that our home could burn or we may have to evacuate without our pets. I want you to know there is only a very small chance that would happen. And if something happens, we have a plan to keep us safe. Would you like to hear about the plan?”
Practice gratitude to combat fear
When it is appropriate, you may want to take your child to the fire station or FEMA headquarters to meet the heroes, express gratitude and ask questions. This will help him or her feel like they are part of the support. He or she may feel a sense of confidence and pride, will see that we are in good hands and can experience the heroism of our community. These emotions can replace some of the fear and anxiety your child may feel.
When in doubt, remember these helpful words from Mr. Rogers: “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.’”
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