The New Year will be a fresh start for many. But for those who have suffered devastating losses of homes, pets and property in the recent Southern California wildfires, including the Creek and Skirball fires, the road to recovery could be a long one.
It can especially hard on kids. Children can react and recover from wildfires and other disasters in a variety of ways, depending on their personal experience of the fire, previous experiences, and life circumstances. Some withdraw, while others will have angry outbursts. Others can become agitated or irritable. Parents should be sensitive to each child’s coping style.
The following are typical reactions children exhibit following a wildfire or other natural disaster:
• Fear and worry about their safety and the safety of others, including pets
•Fear of separation from family members
•Clinging to parents, siblings, or teachers
•Worry about another wildfire
•Increase in activity level
•Trouble concentrating or paying attention
•Withdrawal from others
•Angry outbursts or tantrums
•Aggression toward parents, siblings, or friends
•Increase in physical complaints, such as headaches and stomachaches
•Change in school performance
•Long-lasting focus on the wildfire, such as talking repeatedly about it or acting out the event in play
•Increased sensitivity to the smell of smoke, sound of crackling fire, and hot dry winds
•Changes in sleep patterns
•Changes in appetite
•Lack of interest in usual activities, even playing with friends
•Returning to earlier behaviors, such as baby talk, bedwetting, or tantrums
•Increase in teens’ risky behaviors, such as drinking alcohol, using substances, harming themselves, or engaging in dangerous activities
Below are guidelines for parents, caregivers, and educators that will help support the recovery of children after wildfires.
•Parents should spend time talking to their children, letting them know that it is okay to ask questions and to share their worries, and that their reactions to the wildfires are normal. Although it will be hard finding time, parents can use regular family mealtimes or bedtimes to talk. Issues may come up more than once and parents should remain patient and open to answering questions and clarifying the situation. They should let children know, without overwhelming them with information, what is happening in the family, with their school, and in the community. Parents should answer questions briefly and honestly and ask their children for their opinions and ideas. To help younger children feel safe and calm after talking about the wildfire, parents might read a favorite story or have a relaxing family activity.
To help children’s recovery, parents should:
•Be a role model. Try to remain calm so that you can teach your child how to handle stressful situations. Your ability to cope during and after a disaster influences your child’s recovery.
•Offer to answer your child’s questions about the wildfires: how they start, how they spread, and how firefighters contain and extinguish them.
•Monitor adult conversations. Be aware of what adults are saying about the wildfires or the damage. Children listen to adults’ conversations and may misinterpret what they hear, becoming unnecessarily frightened.
•Limit media exposure. Protect your child from too many images and descriptions of the wildfire, including those on television, on the Internet, on radio, and in the newspaper.
•Reassure children that they are safe. You may need to repeat this frequently even after the wildfire is out. Spend extra time with them, playing games outside, reading together indoors, or just cuddling. Be sure to tell them you love them.
•Calm worries about their friends’ safety. Even though phones may not be working, reassure your children that their friends’ parents are taking care of them, just the way you are taking care of your children.
•Replace lost or damaged toys as soon as you are able.
•Give extra comfort if your child has lost a pet. When you help him/her mourn appropriately, you help the recovery process.
•Tell children about community recovery. Reassure them that the government is working hard to restore electricity, phones, water, and gas. Tell them that the town or city will be helping families find housing.
•Take care of your children’s health. Help them get enough rest, exercise, and healthy food and water. Give them both quiet and physical activities. Know what to do to protect those with health risks, particularly children with asthma.
•Maintain regular daily life. In the midst of disruption and change, children feel more secure with structure and routine. As much as possible, have regular mealtimes and bedtimes.
•Maintain expectations. Stick to your family rules about good behavior and respect for others. Continue family chores, but keep in mind that children may need more reminding than usual.
In addition Encourage children to help. Children cope better and recover sooner when they help others. Give them small cleanup tasks or other ways to contribute. Afterward, provide activities unrelated to the wildfire, such as playing cards or reading.
Source: The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
More information can be found on helping children and adults cope with the loss from fire by visiting: http://nctsnet.org/trauma-types/natural-disasters/fires/wildfires#q1.