By Natalie Bascur
As a parent, you can feel helpless when your children tell you they are scared, especially when you can’t entirely reassure them that their fears are unwarranted. For many mamas and papas, these catastrophic Aussie bushfires have been the first time we’ve actually experiencing a disaster – not just watched something horrible unfold overseas.
For adults AND kids, the world as we knew it now seems irrevocably changed. Most people know someone who has personally been affected by the bushfires, for those who don’t, the images of red skies and koalas with visible burns, not to mention waking up smelling smoke each day, has left both adults and kids feeling a sense of grief.
I have volunteered at crisis helpline Lifeline for the last five years and have spoken with a number of young callers who have felt anxious and frightened because of the rolling coverage in the media and on social media, where they’re often exposed to distressing images. Rachel Bowes, Head of Crisis Services and Quality at Lifeline Australia, has some advice for what we can all do as adults to help kids when they feel scared.
How to help kids feel safe when they feel scared
1 // Limit their exposure
When kids are viewing confronting images in the media, it’s important to recognise the feelings they are having in a positive and compassionate way, reassuring them that they are supported. It’s impossible to shield kids away from seeing traumatic images when they are so widespread, but you can try to limit their time on social media and not have the radio or tv on when they are watching without you. If you notice that they are showing signs of panic that is affecting their interest in their usual activities, it’s probably a good idea to check in with a medical professional.
2 // Keep calm
Children take many of their social cues from their parents, so it’s important to try to keep calm and reassure them that they are safe and loved. In saying that, it’s also beneficial to talk to them about your own feelings so that they know that feeling overwhelmed and upset is actually a very normal response. Encourage them to express their feelings too and listen without judgement. If they don’t want to, let them know they can speak to a friend or family member instead.
3 // Stick to your normal routines
It’s normal for young children to become clingy in a terrifying situation and anxious when left alone. Reassure your child of the steps you have taken to ensure they are safe in the moment you will be separated and let them know when you will return. Some coping tools they can use to help them feel a sense of normalcy again can be to stick to their usual routines and activities. Things like exercise, sport, writing, music and art can also be beneficial.
4 // Check in with your own feelings too
Just like in an aeroplane, it’s important to adjust your own oxygen mask first so that you can help your child adjust theirs; with mental health, it’s so important to ensure your own wellbeing is being looked after so that you can recognise signs in your children and support them when and however needed. Be sure you are also doing these things yourself and taking time out to speak to someone about how you are feeling too if you find yourself struggling.
5 // Adjust your fam-bam’s sleeping routine
If your children are too scared to sleep in their own beds, you need to decide what would work best for your family. Options could include either sharing a bed or bedroom with a family member until they feel safe, or remaining with them until they fall asleep, but what works for some won’t work for all.
6 // Find a trusted support person
Chat to teachers at school if you find your kids becoming fearful, they can also be a trusted support person to talk to. If they are more comfortable discussing things privately, Kids Helpline is set up specifically to talk to children aged between 5 and 25 about their concerns. Children and young people can call at any time for a free and confidential chat on 1800 55 1800. Headspace is another organisation that supports children and young people after 12 to 25, offering support in person, over the phone and online. You can call 1800 650 890 to speak with a clinician 9am-1am (AEDT) or access support online.
Lifeline Crisis Supporters are also available 24 hours a day on 13 11 14. Young people may prefer to receive support via the text service, Lifeline Text which is available 6pm – midnight AEDT on 0477 13 11 14. Some children may not want to talk at all and this is okay – reassure your child that whatever they are feeling is okay and that you love them and support them.
Lifeline has a range of tool kits available for people recovering from the bushfires. One of those tool kits includes age appropriate responses that will assist children to cope after a natural disaster.
Don’t forget to take the necessary steps to look after yourself by accessing whatever supports are helpful for you too.