Talking to Kids About Wildfires and Other Scary Things

A global pandemic, protests, rioting, school closures, and now wildfires—2020 is shaping up to be a very challenging year for parents and children!

Photo courtesy of the Register-Guard.

No doubt kids have questions about what they are hearing and seeing on the news, as well as experiencing first-hand. It’s not always easy to talk about “scary things” with kids (what’s too much information to give, too little, will this give them nightmares? etc.) For this reason, we’ve compiled some tips from child development experts on how to best approach scary topics.

While many of the tips below are specific to talking about the wildfires and smoke, they can be used to talk about other topics such as COVID-19, robberies or violence.

Limit their exposure to frightening media and avoid letting your child experience the news without you. Be there to talk about what they see and hear

If you are watching the news about the wildfires, your child won’t understand how close or far away the fire is. The images will look scary and they make pick up on words such as “out of control,” “spreading,” “death,” etc.

For older kids who might hear about “big events” from friends or on the Internet, ask: “What did you hear and how are you feeling?”

Offer a safe space for your child to ask questions and express their feelings. Be sure to also provide  straight facts and debunk myths or false information you child might have heard. For littles, answer questions as simply as possible. And just answer the question they ask—don’t wax on or give details they don’t ask for: “Are we going to burn? ‘no, the grown ups will keep you safe.’”

Suggest your child express their feelings through art and creative play

Art and creative play are wonderful ways for your child to process their feelings when they have a hard time expressing themselves through words.

Talk about the “helpers”

As Fred Rogers once said, when he was a child his mother told him to look for the people who are helping. Reassure your child that hundreds of helpers are working hard to put out the fires, help families get the things they need (clothing, food, shelter) as well as helping families get their animals out of harm’s way.  Consider helping with your family if you are able. There are currently many opportunities to donate food or other items that children might enjoy helping with.

Create a “family plan” and talk about it with your child

Toddlers and young children are reassured by knowing what’s coming next. Even if your home isn’t in the line of the wildfires, you can have an evacuation plan in place. Experts recommend packing several days worth of clothes and food, along with other essentials such as important papers, extra batteries, first aid kit, and personal hygiene products. Establish a place you can stay and the safest route there in the case that you have to leave your home.  Talk with your child in an encouraging and reassuring way that these measures are doable and OK.

Lastly, use your child’s developmental stage to help guide how to approach tough topics with your child and use your best judgement. As much as we want to shelter our kids from the horrors of the world, there will be times when we have to put our brave face on for our children. But with some conversation tools in our toolbelt, we can approach these tough talks with confidence and care.

This article appeared in the September 14, 2020 of the Register-Guard.




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