As I write, smoke is swirling around homes in Canterbury and in Hawke’s Bay. It is already bad and the fears are it could get worse. My sincerest sympathy to everyone affected by the blaze. I cannot help you protect your home or keep your family safe, but I have some ideas below on how to give your children the emotional first aid they will need during and after a frightening time like this. (For the rest of us, who are well away from the fires, I do not wish to seem overly dramatic or pessimistic, but it is likely most of us will experience times of upset in our families. These tips may be of use then, too.)
1. Put your kids’ emotional well-being high on your ‘to do’ list
Of course, ensuring their actual safety would rate higher on your list but do make a priority of giving your kids the comfort of your arms around them and the reassurance of your calm voice. “Calm voice? When I am so shaken up myself?” Yes. Parents can amaze themselves at how brave they can act when little eyes are staring up into theirs. A trusted ‘big person’ telling a child that they are safe and that things will be okay can make a huge difference, preventing a scary situation from turning into a traumatising one. Yes, there are urgent things to attend to, but do find time to speak to your kids.
2. Bring an adult perspective to their immature understanding
For children in the midst of an emergency, or even just witnessing it online or on TV, their lack of experience (plus the media’s tendency to sensationalise) can make events seem even more catastrophic than they really are. As you describe things or interpret the news to them, always add hope to the picture – “The fire is really bad but it is great that everyone escaped to safety.” “We have had to evacuate. That’s scary but we are surrounded by people who will look after us.” “It’s a huge fire, but the fire fighters won’t let it spread.” Help them understand the ‘Plan B’s’ in their world – if your house is damaged you have insurance; if you can’t go home you can stay with Grandma; there are firefighters, Police, Army and volunteers to help in emergencies and, even if you lose everything in the blaze, you still have the most important things – each other – and life will come right again.
3. Be patient and kind as their ‘nerves settle’
After a time of stress children sometimes take longer than you would expect to recover. They may want to sleep in your bed, they may be anxious if they are separated from you, maybe they will regress to bed wetting or thumb sucking, they might act out, be cranky or even aggressive. Take a step back and realise what this is. A little extra closeness and affection (especially if they are being hard to like!) is a remarkable tonic. If their moods and behaviour remain disrupted after some weeks, you may need some professional help.
4. Use the amazing power of routine
The mundaneness of regular bedtimes, homework, meal times and chores may not sound like remarkable therapy, but routines reassure a child that life is once again safe and predictable. If you have not had many routines, now might be a good time to start. Could I especially recommend a long, multi-step bedtime routine, full of relaxing stories, reassuring hugs and the opportunity for a last chat together in the dark.
5. Help them grieve
If you suffer the loss of possessions, pets, a home or – heaven forbid – a loved one, then, in the midst of your own sadness, you need to coach your young ones in their own sadness. Help them label the powerful emotions they feel – “This is terribly sad; I feel awful too” – and then, without pushing sadness along too quickly, let them know that they will feel better even though they feel bad now. Doing things – drawing pictures, writing stories or poems, having serious little ceremonies – has proved very helpful.
6. Helping others helps them
I believe the ones who come through tragedy best are the ones who look outward and help others. Let them help you or get them to do things on their own. It might be something practical like delivering food to neighbours or perhaps sending texts or cards to people affected expressing sympathy and support.
Again, my sympathy and best wishes to anyone being impacted by the current fires. If The Parenting Place can be of any assistance, please contact us.