Not only is the prospect of a house burning down terrifying to a child (and everyone!), but so are many of the accompanying variables disruptive and disconcerting. The fires in the Los Angeles area have driven home this reality. Fires are destroying homes; the wind is the enemy; the air is unbreathable everywhere; the road closures make it impossible to go anywhere; and schools are unexpectedly closed. What’s a parent to do?
Manage your own feelings. Of course parents are not only terrified but are also burdened by having to change schedules, find new travel routes, make accommodations…and anticipate “what if” for themselves. Feelings leak, and they are contagious. Do your best to calm yourselves out of earshot of your children.
Turn off the media. As always, during difficult times, do your best to stop the flow of scary news and images.
Do not over explain. Answer your children’s questions only. More than that may stir up new worries and more problems for you all.
For young children whose school is unexpectedly closed, try saying:
“There is a big fire in the brush and trees and hills. Because of the wind, the smoke from the fires is blowing all over the place. Even though we can’t really see the smoke, it is there in the air, and we can smell it because the wind has blown it all over, all the way to your school. It is not good for anyone to breathe that air; it is unhealthy for our bodies. So you cannot play outside or do anything that makes you breathe hard.” (That is why school is closed)
For older children you can expand the conversation to include the particulates in the air. You can discuss the flying embers, even doing a “science experiment”— burning a paper in a jar and watch the ash fly. Of courses this comes with the caveat that ONLY adults use fire, etc…
You can add:
“When there is an emergency, often the roads are closed to make way for the helpers. No cars can get through. When one road is closed, another one gets really trafficky and crowded. That makes it so hard to get for some people just to get to school or work. That is what happened today.”
For the children whose family has had to evacuate:
“The fire department has asked us to leave our home just for a while. They want to be sure that we are safe because nothing is more important than that. In case the fire comes closer to our home, they will keep out house safe, spraying it with water and keeping it away.”
If yours is a home that burned, needless to say, it is a whole different script (and life!) for your child.
“Look for the helpers.” Remind your children (what Mr. Rogers taught us) that in times of emergency, when we are worried or scared, we look for the helpers. Share with your children that there are over 3000 firefighters working to put out the fires, that there are police officers and others who are keeping us safe, and that you are with them to keep you all safe. That is your first job.
Focus on helping. As is always the case, taking the time to help others changes a child’s focus and relieves worry and stress, to say nothing of giving us something productive to do.
A client of mine last night shared that her 7 year old daughter created a drive to give toys to children who had lost their homes. She named it “Collection Cares.” Pretty darn fabulous, if you ask me.