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How to talk to kids about the Australian bushfires

By Mums At The Table 2 min read

It can be difficult to talk to children about the devastation of the Australian bushfires, predicted to worsen this weekend. Here's some tips on how to approach it.

In the past few weeks, most of us have been watching in despair the horrors of the Australian bushfire crisis, which tragically has claimed both lives and homes. Many families in affected areas have spent much of the holiday season in evacuation centres, while those in safer areas have watched the horror unfold on television screens. Hundreds of schools had to be temporarily closed due to fires late last year and some schools have now even been destroyed.

How can parents support children who may be distressed by fires, sirens and emergency personnel nearby, or news reports on television about fires in Australia?

Signs to look for

According to the Beyond Blue's "Impact of natural disasters on mental health" fact sheet, it's normal for children to show signs of distress.

"Depending on their age and developmental stage, children and young people might react in various different ways," the fact sheet states. As a guide, below is a list of common signs and symptoms you might observe, which may indicate a child or young person is experiencing trauma:

  • complaints about physical health (for example, sore tummy or headaches)
  • fear that something bad will happen to themselves or primary caregiver/s
  • difficulties separating from primary caregiver/s and/or extreme clinginess
  • nightmares and difficulty sleeping alone
  • changes in thinking, slowed thought process
  • withdrawal from normal activities, friends and social situations
  • isolation (spending more time in their room or alone)
  • new awareness of death and mortality
  • difficulty talking about traumatic events
  • decline in educational functioning, concentration and poor learning outcomes
  • recounting negative events in play and stories
  • appearing more alert and watchful for signs of danger.

Bear in mind that children with additional needs are often more vulnerable and may require support from professionals with specialised training.

7 ways to navigate the difficult discussions that may arise with your children

"Ask kids what they're worried about and give them some information, but don't overwhelm them," suggests Deb Hopper, a paediatric occupational therapist, in her podcast, "How to talk to kids about bushfires".

Plan International Australia, a charity for girls’ equality, has put together the guide, How to talk to your kids about out-of-control fires, in partnership with child psychologist Karen Young.

"It’s so important to reassure children and young people in these hard times—to let them know that they are safe, and to make sure that their concerns and fears are heard," they say.

They have recommended seven steps to talk to kids about the Australian bushfires.

  1. Let them know that whatever they are feeling is okay
  2. Reassure your children
  3. Help your children know they, and others, won't be alone
  4. What if this happens to us? Respond positively
  5. Keep up-to-date with weather and warnings
  6. Make sure your children know vital information
  7. Help them find ways to help

Helping children deal with grief and death

If you need help 

If you would like to help 

  • NSW Rural Fire ServiceThe lead combat agency for bushfires in NSW and the largest volunteer fire service in the world.
  • VIC Country Fire Association: A volunteer and community-based fire and emergency services organisation fighting the bushfires in Victoria.
  • Australian Red Cross: Joint disaster appeal with the ABC to support the communities affected by fires.
  • Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA): With a strong global presence and projects, op shops and connections with churches across Australia, ADRA is well-placed to help in disasters. During the bushfire season, ADRA is partnering with Adventist churches on the ground to provide vital material support and a listening ear to people affected.
  • Port Macquarie Koala Hospital: More than 2000 koalas are feared to have perished in NSW since September 2019. The organisation is sharing the funds raised with other wildlife organisations in the fire-affected regions across NSW. 

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