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How to talk to children about natural disasters

How to talk to children about natural disasters

As bushfires ravage Australia, many parents have been left wondering how to discuss natural disasters with their children.

How to talk to children about natural disasters

Crisis, catastrophe, emergency, disaster. Whichever way you classify it, there’s one common adjective for Australia’s bushfire season – unprecedented. The nation’s mental health is taking a huge toll as those in communities affected by the fires come to terms with devastating losses, traumatic memories and fear of what lies ahead. It’s also common for those not directly impacted by the fires to feel overwhelmed by sadness, helplessness and anxiety.

There’s no doubt there are many adults struggling as the fires continue to rage, which can leave people at a loss as to how to check in with those who understand the crisis the least – children. Research from the Australian Catholic University has shown that between 7 per cent and 45 per cent of children suffer depression, anxiety or distress after experiencing a natural disaster. Whether a child is exposed directly to bushfires or simply becomes distressed amid negative news coverage and constant social media chatter, understanding how to discuss natural disasters with children is crucial. 

To help parents know where to begin, Plan International Australia has created a guide for talking to children in a way that can help them to process their emotions during a natural disaster. Co-authored by child psychologist Karen Young, it offers parents simple and practical tips on how to support children who may be distressed by fires, sirens and emergency personnel nearby or news reports on television about fires in Australia.

Plan International Australia’s director of advocacy and community engagement, Hayley Cull, has extensive experience working with children in the aftermath of emergencies and disasters. Her involvement with humanitarian and development organisations over the last decade has seen her in and out of emergency situations. At the core of her work is the understanding that when emergencies and humanitarian disasters arise, it’s often children who are the most vulnerable. “We know often the challenges that children might be experiencing and vulnerabilities that they face already can be exacerbated in times of crisis, so it’s important to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to keep them safe and to put children first in emergency response,” she explains.

It’s this susceptibility that makes opening the lines of conversation with children so important. This summer’s horrific bushfires could fuel anxiety, distress and even depression in young people and it’s critical that parents acknowledge their children’s feelings and provide reassurance. Plan International’s guide encourages parents to facilitate conversations, even if outwardly it doesn’t appear as though their children are struggling.We know that sometimes the effects of anxiety or even depression in young people can sometimes be a little bit quiet or not as overt,” says Cull. “So it’s about being proactive and talking to children and young people, asking them questions about how they’re feeling and then letting them know that whatever they’re feeling, it’s okay.” 

The remains of a destroyed house are pictured in Cobargo, NSW. REUTERS/Tracey Nearmy

Validating fears and feelings from a position of strength is a key piece of advice for talking to children about the fires – they need to know that whatever they are experiencing is normal. If they believe their feelings or symptoms are a sign that something is wrong with them, they’ll have more trouble recovering from the trauma of the fires. Children will often ask questions seeking reassurance that they are safe, so it’s advised to keep this in mind when answering their queries. It’s important to help children understand they’re not alone, and to remind them of all the people working to keep communities safe such as emergency workers, charities and volunteers. “Having reassuring conversations about the positives and the kind of generosity and compassion that’s been seen by the community, creating a space where children and young people know that they can have those conversations and they can raise anything that they might be feeling, is very important,” explains Cull. Encouraging children towards their own acts of kindness to make a difference will help to replace feelings of helplessness with a sense of helpfulness. 

While Plan International’s guide is largely focussed on the broader group of children who are affected by the relentless news coverage of the fires, there are also some strategies around making children know vital information in case they are caught up in an emergency. These include keeping up to date with weather and warnings, including children in family fire plans, and making sure they know their emergency contact numbers. For children who are feeling distressed by media coverage, Beyond Blue has tips for talking with them about what they see in the news. It starts with being aware of what children are taking in – noticing how often kids are in the room when the television is on, or when they are watching over someone’s shoulder as they browse online. Again, explaining to children that their feelings are normal, providing reassurance they are safe, and pointing out the people working to fix a frightening situation will help to ease worries. 

Furthermore, kids learn how to feel about something by watching and modelling adults, so it’s necessary for parents to manage their own reactions. Taking care of oneself first and foremost is crucial for being able to support the rest of the family. “This has impacted all of us,” says Cull. “The Australian community broadly is really feeling a sense of compassion, but also a real sense of sadness and grief and solidarity with the people who have lost their homes, and lost their family members. It’s understandable that we all might need some support in dealing with that.” Limiting one’s own intake of distressing media coverage, talking to family and friends, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle are all encouraged for managing mental health in times of natural disaster. And of course, seeking professional support where needed should never be ruled out.

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