Therapy Space With Dr. Sara: How to Talk to Children About the California Wildfires

As the wildfires spread and the air quality fluctuates, I am not sure what to say to my kids. My 6 year-old suggested the other day that we “move out of California.” My 9 year-old has heard and asked about all of the recent disasters. How do I explain what is happening, especially when I am nervous myself? Please advise!!

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I want to validate your emotional experience. This is devastating and scary. It is important though that we are honest with our kids and send consistent messages. Our brains are wired to make sense of information we are receiving and essentially create a story. We will seek out, or even make-up, information to fill in the gaps. So, if children see images or overhear stories, they may privately imagine and determine how close the fires are to their own home, to people they love, or if the fires will continue to burn indefinitely. “Everything is fine, sweetie - don't worry!” may be said with the best intentions. However, this could increase anxiety and confusion as it clashes with other information and emotions they are experiencing. This would be compounded if they overhear an anxious conversation between you and a friend. A conclusion may be drawn that you won’t be honest with them when something feels scary.

A few recommendations: 

Address your own fears and find ways to self-soothe. If you have a co-parent, take the time to develop a concrete emergency plan. If you are a single-parent, find someone to bounce ideas off of and get some additional support. A great site for information is readyforwildfire.org. In addition, register for county emergency alerts to your phone at https://www.marinsheriff.org/services/emergency-services/alert-marin. Anyone already registered can vouch for the fact that the jarring alarm sent to your scheduled phone will be sure to grab your attention.

Next, decide what you would like to say to your children. Allow yourself some leeway here as there is no perfect response. When discussing the wildfires, or any type of disaster, provide a sense of safety. This doesn’t mean “nothing bad will ever happen to us,” but rather reassure your child that there is a safety plan in place, including at school, and all decisions will take into account their needs. Next, provide some factual information about the fires, accounting for age and developmental level. Let your child lead parts of the conversation based on his/her questions. Some will have many questions whereas others may not ask anything. Studies show a variation in people's responses, where detailed information reduces anxiety for some (e.g. reading all of the safety precautions when flying), whereas for others less information eases anxiety (e.g. just tell me when it is over). If your child asks questions you can’t answer, let him/her know you will find out the answer and be sure to follow through. On the other hand, if your child has no questions, you may try modeling a few simple ones, “I might be wondering why we have to stay indoors?” Read your child’s body language to get an idea of what he/she may be feeling. Don’t push a conversation, just reiterate that you are open to talking at any time.

Your child walks away seemingly fine and you think, “Well, that wasn’t so bad.” Then at bedtime, uncharacteristically, he melts down about a crease in the page of the bedtime story. Or perhaps she complains of a stomach ache. Remember, emotions are expressed in different ways, physically and emotionally. Our kids may need some extra love and patience from us, as well as opportunities to express themselves. My 3 year-old son has been pretending to be a firefighter since Monday. Through play, children process information. You can also put out art supplies, which is a beneficial way for children to express themselves. When you do need to stay indoors, remember, kids want to have fun. The news blaring in the background (the images are unnerving) or consistency announcing the air quality index will make it difficult for kids to relax. 

Find a way to help! Not only will this relieve some angst, but it also fosters unity within the community. It provides hope for your child to see how people help each other - and our community has certainly stepped up to the task! You can find specific needs for local shelters here: http://bit.ly/2fYYgW4 and of course there are places to make monetary donations. Because money can be such an abstract concept, put it in concrete terms, “We are giving $50 to the food bank, which will provide 150 meals for families.” There are requests for specific donations like clothing, books, etc. You and your child can find items to donate. Discuss why one item may be more useful than another. If your child refuses to give away anything, try and refrain from getting frustrated. Inquire about what they are feeling, for example, there may be fears about losing all of their own belongings. You can model for your child by choosing some of your own things to donate and gently share how someone receiving these items may feel. Another idea would be to bring something to your local fire station - cookies, cards, etc. They are ALL working overtime and by showing our appreciation and acknowledging the life-threatening steps they take for our community can go a long way.

Remember, your children will be looking to you to determine how they should be feeling. Be honest with yourself and with them. If you see signs of heightened, on-going fears, reach out for additional support. Personally, I feel encouraged by how many people are asking how they can help as the needs are so great. Best wishes and stay safe!

Dr. Sara Edrington is a clinical psychologist practicing in San Rafael. She is passionate about her work with adults, adolescents, and couples, using an interactive approach that explores neurobiology, shame, trauma, relationships, parenting and managing stress during life-transitions. She received her Doctorate in Psychology in 2005 at the Los Angeles campus of the CA School of Professional Psychology. She is the Co-founder of Pacific Psychology and on-going supervisor to new professionals. She holds a certification in early childhood education, has presented at several high schools, and works to bring learning outside the classroom through community service, which has enhanced her own personal and professional growth. She is the proud mother of a spirited daughter and son who keep her on her toes, even when everyone should be sleeping.

Dr. Edrington can be reached at 415-690-8208.