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Ways to help your Child or Adolescent through the Australian Bushfires

By Alexandra McCarthy, Registered Psychologist and Co-Founder of Wildflower Holistic Services

There are many Australians and International individuals alike that are looking for ways to support or donate to those who have been affected by the Australian Bushfires. Whilst there are many ways to donate monetary, food and living goods, along with supporting the community through reduced electrical and water consumption, another way we can support others, especially the youth and children of today is through mental and emotional support. In a time where we may feel helpless, our younger generations are looking to us for stability and safety and whilst many may have a number of political opinions from our bigger leaders, we as adults, caregivers, parents and allied health professionals can provide a sense of mental and emotional support to our young ones.

Each morning our nation is waking up to social media, TV channels and radio stations flooded with images and news of the great devastation that our country is facing. Burnt homes or infrastructure, injured or deceased wildlife, people being evacuated and people being unaccounted for, as well as lives lost, along with the enormity of the flames and at times the constant sound of sirens. Where ever you turn there is some reminder, whether good or bad of the destruction that the fires are causing and the complete devastation that we as a nation are facing.

In amongst the rolling coverage of the fires, there have been images of children and young people being circulated around. Now, good news is that children and young people are remarkably resilient and many who have been exposed to these natural disasters will bounce back with very little intervention and just the support of their parents or caregivers. However, there will be some children and young people who may be impacted by the fires directly, having lost their homes and loved ones, some children will have been evacuated, while for other children they may be impacted by smoke and ash or hearing about friends and families frightening experiences. We also know that witnessing the news stories that include loss of life and wildlife and troubling images can have a distressing impact on viewers and in some cases people will have traumatic reactions to this. All experiences are valid and a reaction to any of these differing experiences is possible and real.

Moving forward it is important to be aware of the common reactions of children and young people impacted by the fires, as reactions may appear immediately after the event or may develop in the weeks following the event and to know the difference between common reactions and when professional support may need to be sought after.

Common reactions of children impacted by the fires:

As mentioned above, reactions of children and young people exposed to the trauma of a natural disasters like the bushfires may appear immediately after the event or may develop in the weeks following the event, as each child, like each adult processes’ information and news differently. Often keeping a diary or taking notes for a number of weeks can be helpful when seeking out professional support.

- Common reactions that may indicate your child or young person has been impacted include; sleep disturbances, nightmares, loss or increase in appetite, clinginess to parental figures, withdrawal and loss of interest in usually pleasurable activities, significant changes in mood and physical complaints.

- Distress at the site or thought of anything that might remind them of the experience. This could include avoidance of areas or triggers that remind them of the fires, feeling overwhelmed or frightened by the sound of emergency personnel, or wanting to avoid all media coverage of the fires to prevent any feelings of distress.

- Regressive behaviours can be common, these are things that we would have expected the child to have “grown out of” for their age for example older children might start sucking their thumb or wetting the bed.

- In older children and young people, feelings of guilt for not being able to do more may arise, along with the feeling of helplessness. Agitation and irritability may increase following these events and they may begin speaking out greater about their views. In some cases, young people may start acting out or rebelling but it is just as likely that they withdraw from peers and find it hard to separate from family members.

- Despite being physically safe it is not uncommon for some children and young people to continue to feel unsafe, anxious or worried for some time following exposure to a natural disaster. Evidence of this may be through continual questions asked to parents or caregivers, continual checking of the RFS page or Fires Near me app when the fires have passed or are no longer active or seeming on edge at the sound of any emergency personal vehicle, low flying helicopters or planes.

If you are concerned about the intensity, severity or duration of your child’s or teenager’s reaction you should seek advice from your medical professional, whether that be from a GP or a Psychologist.

Things you can do to help support your child:

- Validate and normalise the child’s experience of distress and emotion. This means letting the child or young person know it is okay and normal that they are feeling however they are feeling. Try not to minimise your child’s experience. Even if you think they personally haven’t been exposed to something upsetting their perception is different to yours and dismissing their emotions may cause them to withdraw from you. It is also important to keep in mind that children and young people are learning about the environment more and more often in school these days compared to 10 plus years ago. So, there understanding and concern of our impact on the environment may be different to our understanding, which may be warranting their level of concern and worry, even though we may think that they are not being directly impacted. For example, Mission Australian 2019 Youth Survey, found the 3 most important issues of Australian Youth today are Mental Health, 36%, The Environment 34% and Equality and Discrimination 25%.

- Remind them that they are safe, that of course is if they are safe. Often anxiety will arise about their own safety or the safety of people they love. Reminding them that they and their loved ones are safe, are getting help and are listening to the advice of professionals can be comforting. However, in saying this it is important to also not make statements that one may not be able to be keep. For example, “the firefighters will keep us safe”, as there is every chance, they may not be able to. However, “the firefighters are here to help us”, provides room for discussion of where they may be helping us.

- We know that helplessness increases the risk of a traumatic reaction so giving a child or young person choice where possible can be a way of mitigating feelings of helplessness. For example; letting them pack a few items to take if you do need to leave the home or having open conversations about ways that they may like to help such as donating clothes or toys that they no longer need or are happy to pass on.

- Provide an environment where they feel safe and supported that they can ask questions but do not force the child or young person to talk about anything they aren’t ready to talk about. You can do this by simply being available for your child or young person and you might repeat things like “If you want to talk about anything or have any questions you can come and ask me when you want to”.

- Use age appropriate language to discuss what is happening and to answer any questions. Do not lie when they ask questions that you do not know the answer to or you may be avoiding the truth out of fear how your child or young person may respond. You can answer by saying “I don’t know” if you feel uncomfortable answering questions but lying about information may add to their anxiety later when they are looking for safety and stability, knowing a loved one has lied may mean they do not turn to them for future support.

- Be prepared to repeat yourself, asking the same questions repeatedly may be reassuring for a child or young person who is anxious or trying to understand.

- The media is an important means of circulating information during a natural disaster like these fires Australia is experiencing. It is a source of information about where is safe and not safe, what help is available and how to access it. Whilst the media is important, it is worth noting that the media also tends to focus on the most frightening and shocking aspects, which can cause distress to viewers. Adults caring for young people can limit the amount of media (TV or internet) that your child or young person is exposed to about the fires. If they are watching something make sure you are with them so you are able to answer any questions they have and monitor their reactions to what they are seeing and hearing.

- Providing stability and routine as much as possible. If routine has been disrupted for example you may have been evacuated from your home letting the children know what is going to happen ahead of time is encouraged.

- Encourage helpful coping strategies. When distressed we can encourage children to utilize their strengths and take a step back from their distressing thoughts and feelings. Utilising sensory aids like a weighted blanket can also reduce anxious or overwhelming sensations felt within the body which can be one way to reduce their worries and relax.

- Finally, whilst it may be difficult if you seem anxious it can reinforce a child’s or young person’s thoughts and feelings about their current environment being unsafe and that they are in fact in danger. Keeping calm and being a positive role model can be hard especially when you too are experiencing and witnessing these traumatic fires. However this is such an important thing for your child to see, and a great source of stability and reassurance for them. Take the time to look after yourself and process how you are feeling. Engage with your supports and monitor yourself for your own response. If you are feeling overwhelmed talk with your family, friends or professional.

When to get professional help

If your child or young person is exhibiting concerning thoughts, feelings or behaviours 4-6 weeks after the experience then it is recommended that you involve a professional in their recovery. Please note that these fires have been going on for almost two months now, so waiting 4-6 weeks after the experience may be too long as repeated and long exposure to these events can increase one’s anxiety and worry. If you think that your child or young person is in danger for example from self-harm or suicidal thoughts or if they develop other severe reactions then you need to seek immediately.

Professional support can be sought from your local GP, school counsellor and mental health professionals like psychologists. There are also online services and information where parents and guardians can get more information like Youth Disaster Recovery

and Headspace- How to support your child after a natural disaster and hotlines that you can speak to if seeking support like ParentLine 1300 1300 52 (NSW, state specific numbers).

If anything in this article has made you distressed or concerned you can contact Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 or Life Line on 13 11 14.

References and for more information;

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