“This is the new future…it will only get worse.”
These words are from Neil Bibby, former chief executive of Victoria’s Country Fire Authority, and are echoed by other fire and emergency chiefs around the country, warning of the “New Bushfire Reality”. The media coverage of the horrific fires currently affecting much of the country is distressing for many people.
Children, in particular, may be traumatised by media images and (depending on their age) the discussions about the causes and long-term ecological and environmental consequences of bushfires. The message is loud and clear; these fires are incredibly destructive and will continue to occur in the future.
As a result, it is important to recognise that it is not only children directly affected by the fires who may suffer from trauma. Even if your child is not located in the areas burnt, or even at risk – being exposed to media stories or hearing adults talk about the devastation can have an impact on their mental wellbeing.
Adults and children react differently to any traumatic experience and, unlike adults, children cannot express their feelings clearly, or perhaps even understand why they are feeling the way they do.
Parents need to be aware of the following:
- Some children can be affected by information from media including social media or hearing their parents talk.
- Some of the signs indicating a child is distressed include not wanting to sleep alone, having nightmares, being irritable, wanting to stay with the parent, having problems concentrating at school, being irritable or changes in their eating behaviour.
- Children who are more at risk of developing more lasting problems are those who have lost family and friends, those who have been seriously injured or witnessed horrific scenes, and those who have developed problems in response to past traumas.
As children may not be able to express or even understand why they feel upset, monitoring any changes in their behaviour (such as those listed above) is the key. It is also important to talk openly with your child about what they are worried about and create as much safety around their mental wellbeing as possible.
You can help your child recover by doing the following:
- Spend more time with your child doing what they enjoy and give them plenty of hugs and the affection they need. If your child’s routine has been disrupted, for example bedtime, gradually re-establish these routines.
- Find out what your child knows and correct any misconceptions using simple age-appropriate language.
- When talking about bushfires, be mindful of children being present or the possibility that they will overhear the conversation.
With the height of summer yet to arrive and experts warning of more catastrophic fires, unfortunately, there will only be more awareness and discussion about this in coming months. Be aware that this also means there is a risk of distress for your child. Be vigilant about protecting them and help them develop coping strategies for trauma. As for bushfires, being as prepared as possible is vital.
The Carousel would like to thank Dr Olga Lavalle, a Clinical Psychologist. She is a member of the Australian Clinical Psychology Association, as well as the Australian Psychological Society and Fellow of the College of Clinical Psychologists.