Through the smoke: talking to children about bush fire risk

Families across Victoria are on edge. The bush fire season can be stressful for those living in at-risk communities. Sometimes, children don't have ways of understanding what they see and can be particularly vulnerable to feelings of anxiety, stress and sadness.

So how do we help our children cope with this unprecedented emergency? How can adults talk to children about bush fire risk and preparation without compromising their sense of safety and security?

Children and young adults impacted by disaster respond differently to distress than adults. While some children will be affected negatively by exposure to information about bush fire risk, this is not the case for all children. Some may react immediately; others may withdraw and only show signs of difficulty later. It is important to remember that many children are resilient and have a strong natural ability to adapt to challenging events. Their needs will vary depending on their ages and how much they understand of what they see.

Repetitive news coverage of the bush fires can be confused by the very young as one continuous episode of fire danger. They do not understand that the footage is being repeated and this can be distressing for young children. So monitor what is being shown on the television.

Signs of negative reactions to bush fire risk:
  • becoming more clingy towards a parent or carer (for example wanting to be held more than usual, wanting to be with parents or carers, asking about fire, seeking reassurance)
  • changes to sleeping or eating patterns, or both
  • the emergence of new physical complaints - such as stomach ache or headache
  • changes in mood - such as being more irritable, or shutting down
  • appearing on edge and frightened - for example, being more easily startled, developing new fears or having nightmares

Listen carefully to what children say:

If you notice these changes than it is important to ask the child what they are worried about. Start by asking your child's permission to talk about the issue. Talk to them in a way that is open and appropriate to their age. Follow their lead and if they don't want to discuss it, don't push it. Just remind your child that they can talk to you, their teachers and  other trusted adults whenever they like.

Some children may be eager to talk about their concerns. Listen to their questions and fears and show them that you understand.

Children will often talk about what they are thinking or how they are feeling (I'm scared, Mum) without necessarily connecting their feelings to a specific event. Listen carefully, so you understand what is going on in their minds.

Drawing, stories and other activities may help to open up a discussion, and assure them it's natural to feel sad or scared about these things.

If you notice changes in a child's behaviour and you think that it might be a reaction to bush fire risk, ask them to describe what they are thinking or feeling. If it is about a specific question (the sign is red today, that's bad isn't it?) answer their question, be reassuring and truthful.

Watch Behind the News - Bushfire Season - viewing the bush fire season through the eyes of children.

Be honest, explain the truth:

Children have a right to truthful information about what is happening in the world but adults also have a responsibility to keep them safe from distress. (Explain to them that a red sign means there is a risk of fire, but also help them understand what you are doing to make sure everyone is safe). If you don't know the answer to their questions, use it as an opportunity to explore the answer together. Try to find out what made them ask their question. This will help to identify the source of concern, which maybe different to their question.

Use age-appropriate language, be mindful of their reactions and be sensitive to their level of anxiety.

Offer reassurance, stay positive:

When talking to children about bush fire risk, help them to recognise unhelpful thoughts and feelings then teach them to use more helpful alternatives. For example, instead of thinking "I think something bad is going to happen" you could encourage your child to think, "because today is going to be hot, I am feeling scared, but Mum and Dad have a plan to help us stay safe". Tell them what the plan is. For example "The whole family is going to stay with Grandma and Grandpa". This is a great opportunity to get your children involved in your bush fire survival plan.

Give them specific, manageable, age-appropriate tasks, and include them when rehearsing the plan. By doing this children will learn that the decisions and actions are not only being made for them but with them.

It is important that adults a use positive and reassuring language when around children; explain that a plan has been made to keep everyone safe and show them how it will work. Tell your children that you love them and remind them that the adults in their lives are doing everything they can to keep them safe.

If they talk about bad events from the past (such as Black Saturday) explain that you have learned from that and are well prepared. Plan to spend extra time with them as they get past the distress and anxiety. Children are resilient and hopeful. Help children to grow in self-confidence by talking to them about the bush fire preparation steps taken to ensure their safety.

It is extremely important for children affected by distress to get back to playing and learning so they can regain a sense of normalcy and routine. Visit child-friendly spaces (such as your local library) so your child feels safe and has a place to learn and play away from television and screen time.

Good people trying to help:

It's important for children to know about acts of bravery, generosity and kindness from ordinary people trying to help families impacted by the bush fires. Sharing stories of volunteer firefighters, community leaders and everyday Australians showing compassion can be comforting and necessary. Talking to children and showing how they can help others can be empowering and a vital step to restoring confidence. Get together and brainstorm ideas about what small or large actions can be taken to help bush fire affected communities.

Look after yourself:

Try to manage your own stress reactions and to model good coping strategies to children. (Relaxation techniques such as calm breathing and having your bush fire plan in place will help to minimise stress).

By using these strategies adults can safely talk to children about the risks and dangers of bush fires. Talking to children about bush fire risk will reduce the likelihood of distress during Summer and will also help children to build coping skills and feel emotionally secure.

Where to get help:

Through the Smoke

The bushfire season can be stressful for those living in at-risk communities. But what about children? How can adults talk to children about bushfire risk and preparation without compromising their sense of safety and security? It is important that children are taught to respect, understand and manage dangers in their lives, including bushfire risk. Here are a mixture of picture books, fiction and non-fiction books for children about bush fires and wildfires.

View Full List
Books about dealing with disaster for children

As the fires rage Australia, some children are feeling anxious and unsure. Here are some of my picks for books on understanding fires, other difficult situations and how to deal with their feelings.

View Full List 
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