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.
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.
Our firefighters have received many thank you letters and signs posted on homes over the past months. Here is a special one, we assume made specially for our aviation teams to find. We love how creative some of these messages are. See if you can spot it. Thank you. #nswrfs pic.twitter.com/tNMvv6QJLV
— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) January 9, 2020
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.
Victorian siblings Arlo and Marcel prove you're never too young to help those in need! They've baked 188 Anzac biscuits and are selling them at Sorrento's main street, with all proceeds going to the bushfire appeal. Generous Victorians have helped them raise $1000! #VicFires pic.twitter.com/vmioDpXAKc
— Nine.com.au (@Ninecomau) January 7, 2020
Other young people have been spotted rescuing wildlife in the fire-ravaged town of Mallacoota in Victoria.
This is Patrick Boyle.
Since the fire has passed through Mallacoota this amazing, selfless young guy has been out searching for injured wildlife. This is one of 7 koalas he's saved so far
— DJ (@_CharleeGirl_) January 3, 2020
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.
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.”
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.
Remind them of the good in the world.
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.