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How to talk to your children about Australia’s bushfires

Children from Clifton Creek in Victoria attend a community meeting as the state remains on high bushfire alert. Photo: Getty
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Australian parents are being urged to talk to their children who may be suffering anxiety about the catastrophic bushfires ripping through our nation.

Encouraging them to get involved – either by raising money or volunteering – is one way to help them cope, say child psychologists.

And given the extent of the disaster, it’s no wonder many children are feeling distressed.

Since out-of-control fires first broke out in New South Wales and Victoria in November, Australian television screens have been dominated by distressing footage of properties engulfed in flames and images of dead koalas, cattle and kangaroos.

So far, 26 people have been killed in the disaster, millions of hectares have burned and thousands of homes destroyed during our worst bushfire season on record.

The remains of gutted buildings are seen in the New South Wales town of Cobargo in December after bushfires ravaged the town. Photo: Getty

Children who have been forced to evacuate danger zones with their families have been left traumatised by the relentless wail of emergency sirens and scenes of terrifying fires.

Feelings of anguish and grief are completely normal in these extreme situations.

Research from the Australian Catholic University shows between seven to 45 per cent of children suffer depression, anxiety or distress after experiencing a natural disaster like out-of-control bushfires.

But it’s not all sadness and terror – one group of children delighted NSW Rural Fire Service firefighters by leaving behind creative messages for them to read from their helicopters.

One pair of Victorian siblings, Arlo and Marcel, were spotted running their own fundraiser in the coastal town of Sorrento along Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.

They sold homemade Anzac biscuits for $5 each.

Other young people have been spotted rescuing wildlife in the fire-ravaged town of Mallacoota in Victoria.

Even in areas that have not been directly affected, many children have been left feeling scared and hopeless.

While most of them will be able to bounce back, child psychologists are urging parents to talk to their children and help them feel safe and understand the situation.

One young evacuee from Mallacoota was all smiles as she disembarked the navy ship HMAS Choules at the port of Hastings. Photo: AAP

Child psychologist Karen Young, who has co-authored a guide about how to talk to children about the bushfires with Plan International Australia, said children responded in different ways to news of the fires.

“They might feel scared, sad, confused or they might feel nothing at all,” Ms Young said.

“Let them know they aren’t alone, and that whatever they are feeling is completely understandable.”

Mallacoota bushfires evacuees arrive at the Somerville Recreation Centre south-east of Melbourne on Saturday morning. Photo: AAP

Plan International Australia advocacy director Hayley Cull said it was easier for children to recover when they understood their emotions were shared by the community.

She said it was important to talk about the positive stories of people helping each other out and the generosity of Australians united by grief in a crisis.

“This summer’s unprecedented fires are a stark reminder that the climate emergency is upon us,” Ms Cull said.

“Even for children who are not directly affected by this disaster, it can be very scary as rolling news coverage heightens anxiety.”

How to talk to your children about Australia’s bushfires

1. Let them know that whatever they are feeling is okay

Listen to your children’s concerns and respond from a position of strength.

E.g. “I can hear how worried you are. What’s happening is scary, but you are safe. There are so many people who feel exactly the way you do. You aren’t alone – I promise.”

2. Reassure your children

Let them know there are lots of people like firefighters working hard to keep them safe.

If they see emergency services personnel or hear sirens, reassure them that these experts are very skilled at what they do.

3. Help your children know they, and others, won’t be alone

Disasters are a time when communities come together.

Remind them that people who have lost their homes or have been hurt in the fires will be looked after.

Talk to them about the charities and organisations like Foodbank Australia and Red Cross providing support.

Remind them of the good in the world.

Volunteers in Foodbank’s Yarraville warehouse pack supplies for bushfire victims. Photo: Foodbank

4. What if this happens to us?

Traumatic events can make children very aware of their own vulnerability. They will usually look to the close adults in their lives for signs of safety.

E.g. “Every time something like this happens, we learn how to stay safer. We learn how things like this happen, so we can stop it happening again.”

5. Keep up to date with weather and warnings

Talk to your children about weather warnings and fire ratings, especially for total fire ban days, and explain why some activities like cooking sausages on barbecues are prohibited at these times.

6. Make sure your children know vital information

Make sure they can recite their full name and address, emergency contact numbers and any allergies or medical conditions they have.

Check they know to call Triple Zero in an emergency and practice what they need to say.

Practice your fire plan with them.

7. Help them find ways to help

Encourage your children to find ways to help others in their community.

Explain how their own acts of kindness will help alleviate their own feelings of despair and helplessness.

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