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Kids Are Anxious About The Bushfires. Here's What Parents Should Do.

The horrendous and unprecedented fires that have raged across Australia over the last week have shocked and deeply shaken all of us, but the effect of rolling news coverage and anxiety on children is particularly concerning.

On New Year’s Day, Australia woke to startling imagery of Mallacoota, a small coastal town in north-eastern Victoria, splashed across newspaper front pages and on television screens. Ferocious fires had ripped through the popular tourism destination and its surrounding bushland, with terrified residents forced to seek refuge in the shallow waters of its beaches.

One striking image in particular stood out: 11-year-old Finn Burns in a small boat rowing his family away from Mallacoota’s shores, his face covered in a mask and the sky cloaked in an eerie crimson light.

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Many likened the image to those of refugees fleeing their war-torn homelands.

This picture has now become etched into Australians’ -- and the world’s -- minds as a symbol of the devastating impact the fires are having on Australia’s young people.

Working in humanitarian organisations for the past decade, I’ve seen too many lives destroyed by disasters -- from fires and floods to food crises like the one currently gripping Southern Africa. It never gets any easier to see the suffering and heartache, particularly among children, their extraordinary resilience and hopefulness being stretched to breaking point.

Since bushfire season began unusually early in August, children have watched on as more than 10 million hectares have burned and more than a billion precious wildlife have perished.

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The fires have already claimed 26 lives and thousands of homes -- and that number is expected to rise.

Many families in affected areas have spent much of the holiday season in evacuation centres, while those in safer areas have watched the horror unfold on television screens. Hundreds of schools have closed and some have even been burnt to the ground.

Children wear masks as they play at the showgrounds in Bega, NSW after being evacuated from nearby sites affected by bushfires on December 31. (Image: Getty)

Research has found between seven and 45 percent of children suffer depression, anxiety or distress after experiencing a natural disaster. So what do parents need to know when talking with their kids about climate change and out-of-control fires?

It is critical that we build resilience in the next generation. Talking to kids in Australia about the fires ravaging our country will help them be better prepared, increase awareness of the impacts of fires and climate change at home and encourage children to play a vital role in protecting our precious environment.

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As child psychologist Karen Young has noted, it’s also important that children feel safe. If they see firefighting services in action or hear sirens, reassure them that these emergency services are skilled at what they do. Always answer your children’s questions about fires, as it’s important that children feel comfortable to raise their fears with you, and are encouraged to speak freely about things that are concerning them.

Children play at the showgrounds in Bega, NSW after being evacuated from nearby sites affected by bushfires on December 31, 2019. (Image: Getty)

Having honest discussions with children can also help assure them of the incredible community surrounding them. Remind children about the positives: the brilliant, collaborative work of emergency services, neighbours and family, so that they know that if a fire strikes, they won’t be alone.

Early conversations can protect children: if fires do happen to threaten your home, it’s important that children have been a part of developing your family’s fire plans and can recite their full name and addresses, emergency contact numbers and evacuation plans.

Children need to know that whatever they are experiencing or feeling in response to the fires is normal and understandable. They will have more trouble recovering from the trauma of the fires if they believe their feelings or symptoms (such as anxiety) are a sign that something is wrong with them.

Through our work with children, we have learnt that kids are better able to comprehend and cope with disasters when they are reassured of their safety, that they are not alone in their feelings, and of the positive stories of communities helping each other out. Most children are resilient by nature and will bounce back.

These terrible times will test all of us, but as we always have, Australians will unite in our grief and we will roll up our sleeves and pitch in to help those who are suffering.

Plan International Australia works with children in the aftermath of emergencies and conflicts all around the world. We respond to disasters when they happen so that children and families are helped as soon as possible. We have launched a guide to help parents talk with their kids about climate change and out-of-control fires. Read the guide here.