How to Talk to Children About Bushfires – What Parents and Teachers can do to Help
Even if you haven’t been directly impacted by bushfire, your children or students may have seen images on the news and social media that have caused them anxiety. They may have friends or family living in bushfire affected areas that they have been worried about, or concerns about their own vulnerability and local bushfire risk. This concern is quite natural and understandable, and your child might need a little help processing the emotions they are feeling. Here are some things you can do to help.
How to talk to children about bushfires
Here are our suggestions:
Your child might not speak to you directly about bushfires, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t communicating. Signs of anxiety to look out for are:
- changes to behaviour
- increased clinginess
- lack of appetite
- sudden stomach aches or other physical complaints
- lack of interest in favourite activities
Your child might not feel comfortable opening a conversation about their concerns. For some children that might be because they don’t want to worry you, but others simply might not know how to. Take the lead with gentle questions; ask them to describe how they are feeling and if they can tell you why they are feeling that way. If they aren’t ready to talk to you yet, that’s ok – let them know that you will be available and ready when they are.
Let them express their feelings
If your child isn’t ready to verbalise how they feel, they might be able to express how they feel in other ways. Offer the opportunity for them to draw a picture of what they are thinking about, or act out their feelings indirectly using toys, and let that be the way to open a conversation.
Validate their feelings
This could be the first big crisis your child has experienced, and as such they might not know what they are expected to feel. Let them know that whatever they are feeling is ok, and that they are not alone – lots of others will be feeling just the same way. Whatever they are feeling – anger, sadness, or nothing at all – is the correct response for them.
Tell your child that you love them and that everyone is doing everything they can to keep them safe. Let them know that you have a plan in case of emergency, and – if age appropriate – discuss that plan with them so that they know what their role will be. Be honest in answering any questions they might have whilst remaining mindful of their level of anxiety, and if you don’t know the answer, investigate together.
Resilience is the capacity to bounce back after hardship. Be honest with your child and explain that life is mainly good but now and then everyone has a difficult or unhappy time. When times are difficult, it’s important to stay hopeful and expect things to get better. Show your child the things that haven’t changed – their home or school, their friends, their routine etc. – and help them to understand that although some things might always be different, life will return to normal and be good again.
Share with your child the good news. Anywhere that disaster strikes, there will be helpers. Talk to your children about the Rural Fire Service, water bombers and SES volunteers, the wildlife rescuers helping to heal injured wildlife, and the charities making sure that everyone has something to eat and a place to stay. This is a good time to show them how resilient nature can be, and how forests are already regenerating with new growth. Communities come together in times of crises, and this crisis has shown that we are part of a huge global community with help coming in from around the world. Let them know that help is there for everyone who needs it.
Let them help too
By finding ways children can help, you can help them process their feelings positively. Ask your child who they would like to help, and how they would like to do it. Your child could fundraise by selling things they don’t want anymore, or by asking friends and family to sponsor them with a challenge. If you have an older child and a sewing machine, they can help by making pouches for injured wildlife. Turning feelings of helplessness into helpfulness will show your child that they, too, can make a difference.
Where to donate for bushfire recovery
If you would like to donate funds, goods or services towards bushfire recovery, here are some charities to consider.
Queensland bushfire charities
These volunteer services are accepting financial donations.
National/Interstate bushfire charities
These services are accepting cash donations in support of people directly affected by bushfires.
- Australian Red Cross Society
- The Salvation Army
- St Vincent de Paul Society (Vinnies)
- Lifeline – Supporting people directly and indirectly affected by the bushfires nationally.
This service matches donated goods with those who need them.
National bushfire charities supporting wildlife
Backyard Buddies has collated a huge and comprehensive list of wildlife rescue and care organisations across all regions of Australia. You can find a wildlife rescue near you, or donate to one in the bushfire affected areas. Click here to see them all.
Other ways to help in bushfire affected areas
If you have a skill that others need, or practical support to offer, consider becoming a volunteer. You can find more information on becoming a disaster relief volunteer here.
Spend With Them
Spend With Them in an Instagram initiative that has sprung up to help rebuild businesses affected by the recent bushfires. Businesses in bushfire affected areas have taken a huge hit; if they haven’t lost premises and stock directly, they have lost the tourism trade and community spending will be down as personal funds are directed towards rebuilding and recovery.
The Spend With Them initiative encourages people to buy goods and services online from these businesses to help keep them thriving. Search the Instagram hashtag #spendwiththem or take a look through other opportunities here.
Stay With Them Australia
Similar to Spend With Them, Stay With Them encourages people to book a holiday to a fire-affected area to help rebuild the tourism industry and put money directly back into the local community. Book a stay when it is safe to do so in an area you might never have considered before. Buy goods and fuel from local businesses and be sure to visit the local tourist attractions! Choose your next trip away here. Search the Instagram hashtag #staywiththemau to find out more.
Books to help children understand natural disasters
Books for pre-schoolers
Birdie and the Fire by Andrea Murray and Anil Tortop – Birdie has to evacuate her tree during a bushfire, but there are lots of people and friends to keep her safe and help life get back to normal afterwards. (Click the image to read FREE online).
The Firefighters by Sue Whiting – Jack, Mia, the narrator and their teacher are pretending to be firefighters. They zoom through the playground in their pretend fire engines and save the imaginary Lulus Ice creamery from destruction. Just when they think their adventure is over, a real fire engine with real firefighters on board arrives for a surprise visit.
Books for lower primary
Fire by Jackie French – Fire is a moving and sensitive story of a natural disaster as seen through the eyes of a cockatoo. The fire mercilessly engulfs homes and land, leaving a path of destruction. But from the ruins, courage, kindness and new life grows. A beautiful and timely expression of the strength of the Australian spirit during times of adversity.
Emergency Rescue by Catherine Baker – Who helps in an emergency? Read all about the fire service, police, coastguard and others who come to the rescue.
Through the Smoke by Phil Cummings and Andrew McLean – Through the Smoke tells the story of three kids, their imagination and a frightening fire in the Australian bush.
Fabish: the Horse That Braved a Bushfire by Neridah McMullins and Andrew McLean – This book tells the true story of a retired Australian racehorse who lead seven yearlings to safety when a bushfire came to their property.
Books for upper primary
Eco Rangers Wildfire Rescue by Candice Lemon-Scott – There’s been a devastating wildfire in the bushland and Ebony and Jay are doing their best to find injured animals. As they rescue a cute little possum with burned paws, they also discover that some people have been camping in the area that was devastated by the fire. What were they doing there? This is a mystery for the Eco Rangers!
Fire and Drought by Ian Rohr – This non-fiction book discusses cause, effect, action and solution around natural disasters.
Bush Baby Rescue, Juliet Nearly a Vet by Rebecca Johnson and Kyla May – When a bushfire strikes Juliet has never been busier helping the baby animals that arrive at her mum’s vets.
Books for middle school
47 Degrees by Justin D’Ath – This book describes the events for 12-year-old Zeelie when bushfires destroyed their home. It is confronting in places but there are many beautiful moments, including the friendships Zeelie made, her resilience, and the community coming together to nurture those going through trauma and displacement.
The House on the Mountain by Ella Holcombe – This is the powerful story of a family who lose their home in a bushfire and their journey of recovery.
Resources to help younger children in the aftermath of disasters
Sesame Workshop, the non-profit creators of Sesame Street, has developed a number of resources to help families, especially children, cope in the aftermath of our devastating bushfires.
Whilst some of the immediate bushfire threat may have passed, children might only start to exhibit signs of stress and anxiety in the coming months, so the link below offers tips, guides, and video resources on offering comfort, helping children feel prepared for emergencies, and talking together about fires, traumatic experiences, and scary news.
*This editorial appeared in our print issue 38, Feb/Mar 2020