It's a terrifying situation no parent wants to imagine, but the wildfire crisis in Australia can't be ignored. For mamas in the midst of a disaster like this one it can be hard to know what to do or say to help your children feel better.
A mama from Australia messaged us in the hopes of finding some tools to help her children cope with the anxiety. We know that kids are scared and parents are scared, too.
But we also know that in the face of that fear, we parents can empower ourselves to protect their children's sense of security and their mental health.
Dr. Laurie Zelinger is a child psychologist and author of Please Explain 'Anxiety' to Me: A Story for Children, PEARLS of Wisdom for Their Parents. She says that while it's natural for parents to feel anxious during events like disasters or after acts of terrorism, we should try to control our own anxiety before having a talk with our kids about theirs.
“Even if [you're] not comfortable, you have to do a couple of things to make yourself look more comfortable," she suggested in a previous interview with Motherly.“Talk much more slowly than you think you need to, and sit at your child's eye level."
That is exactly what mom of two Meaghan Wegg did when her family had to evacuate during their vacation and spend six days sheltering in a movie theatre, watching kids movies as the ash fell outside.
"It was super hard for me to keep calm but knowing my kids were there and needed my support definitely helped me focus on them. I had to keep them being kids to avoid the stress getting to them," she tells Motherly, explaining that her family usually lives in Montreal, Canada, but her husband, Tim, was born in Australia. They were visiting his home country this holiday season with their children, 3-year-old Georgia and 5-year-old Jackson and were staying at a popular campground when they were advised to leave and eventually ended up sheltering in a cinema with more than 100 others.
Intuitively, Meaghan ended up using some of the strategies Dr. Zelinger previously suggested to Motherly for parents dealing with anxious children during chaotic events outside their control: "Prepare, explain, answer, reassure, listen, safeguard."
"We played rock, paper, scissors over 100 times," Meaghan tells Motherly.
She has some advice for parents in Australia who may have to leave their homes: "Know your safety plan and exit plan if ever anything needed to urgently happen, and keep your focus on your kids' health. I became glued to them!"
Eventually, Meghan's family was rescued from the area and is now safe at her in-law's home outside of Melbourne, away from the fires.
If you are in Australia and the idea of talking about the wildfires with your kids has you frazzled, try using Dr. Zelinger's 'PEARLS' of wisdom method.
Dr. Zelinger suggests parents don't start heavy discussions right at bedtime. Instead, set aside an earlier time in the day to hang out with your kids and answer their questions.
P is for Prepare
Before discussing evacuation plans with your children, decided what you think they need to know and plan out how you're going to explain it at an age-appropriate level. They don't need every detail, but give them the broad strokes.
E is for Explain
If your child wants to know why the family must be prepared to evacuate, or why everyone keeps talking about fire, tell them, but keep it simple and on their level. “I would probably give them an explanation that was only two or three sentences and see if that satisfies them," says Laurie.
If it seems like your kid isn't getting what you're saying, as them to break it down for you. You cannot assume that what you say is understood unless you check, Dr. Zelinger explained.
A is for Answer
If your child asks the same question more than once, try to use the same explanation each time you respond. “You're usually better off using the same answer you used before so the child realizes there is certainty in it," Dr. Zelinger says.
R is for Reassure
According to Dr, Zelinger, one of the best things parents can do for a child who is anxious about an event outside their control is simply reassure them that the grownups are doing their best to keep them safe.
Don't make guarantees, but remind them that there is more good in the world than bad.
L is for Listen
“Just let your kids talk," says Dr. Zelinger. Take some mental notes while they go on. The things they keep repeating are the issues they're confused about and that you can clarify later. Be mindful of the areas that they're avoiding too because maybe you need to fill in an important detail that they've totally missed.
S is for Safeguard
If your child is worried that they will lose their home or be hurt, take a moment to talk about all the things their community is doing to prevent that from happening. “Make sure we're reminding the children of all the safeguards in place to protect them," says Laurie.
Unfortunately, parents can't guarantee that homes and schools will not be lost. But you can guarantee your children that you will always be there to listen to them, and that you will do your very best to keep them safe.
[A version of this post was published February 6, 2018. It has been updated.]