Supporting Your Child Through the Wildfire Disaster: 6 Tips From a Child Psychologist

In the last 48 hours, our California communities have been thrown into survival mode as they race to protect the people, animals, and structures they cherish.  As families leave their homes for safe shelter or stay monitoring media updates with bags packed, parents are wondering how this will impact their children.

Napa and Folsom Child Wellness owner, Dr. Kirsten Kuzirian is sharing the following tips for parents that can be used during an ongoing crisis or in the aftermath.

1. Be Gentle with Yourself.  You either just made or are in the process of making some of the hardest decisions you will likely be faced with about your family's safety and well-being, you are under an immense amount of pressure and may be doing all of this with little sleep and little time to emotionally process any of it.  When you hear a critical voice, acknowledge it, and then put it in it's place- the adults in these communities (that's you!) are doing an AMAZING job problem-solving and working together in a terrifying situation.  Practice using a kind inner voice as this is the outer voice that will most likely pop out at your loved ones.

2. Accept All the Feelings. Accept your feelings, accept your child's feelings and accept that "fixing" these feelings is not part of your parental job description.  By accepting your own feelings about the crisis you are better able to choose how you express them.  You can take more ownership of them and model for your children that it is absolutely appropriate to have feelings about what is going on around them, "I'm sad we had to leave Benji at the animal shelter because he's such an important part of our family but the shelter is the safest place for him right now."  

Be open and curious about your child's experience.  As heartbreaking as it feels to hear that your child may be scared or sad, know that when they can share this with you, they are not alone with these feelings.  Instead of giving into the urge to try to fix or solve your child's feelings state, VALIDATE those feelings instead, "You're worried right now."  Sitting with these feelings is enough, but you can also explore what being worried feels like in your child's body and offer to practice some deep breathing or body stretches.  

3. Help Them See the Light.  Viewing the world with gratitude helps us to feel hopeful and positive.  The practice of gratitude is something we see in individuals that show resiliency to trauma or crisis.  Add pieces of this wherever it feels authentic.  You could verbalize your appreciation for the concern and support from friends and family.  Or express thanks for the help of community volunteers, public servants and neighbors.  These messages remind your child that in the midst of painful transitions they can count on others to care about them.

4. Use Focused Energy. You may be trying to collect information about your child's school, your home, their best friend, the cat and the dog, so that you can reassure the family with updates.  This can be exhausting and maybe even impossible right now with power outages and lost cell service.  Harness your energy by checking in with your child about what they are wondering about.  Every person is different and the things your child is actually thinking about may surprise you. Even if you don't have the answers they want, your curiosity reminds them their feelings are important and they are deeply connected to you even at this time.

5. Structure Some Simple Joys. Your family's day to day routine has been disrupted.  In some areas, the places that make up those routines have been devastated.  It can be disorienting for the whole family to go hour by hour not knowing what to expect.  Once you are physically safe, pick one thing each day that you can use as your child's north star.  If you are traveling to stay with grandparents, ask them to cook a favorite meal and this can be something your child can look forward to and count on.  You can do this with anything, a trip to the animal shelter to check on a pet, an outing to a movie to stay out of the smoke and haze.  Pick even the smallest thing and refer to it through out the day so your child has some structure to orient to.

6. Help Them Be the Light.  After we have been in survival mode, our adrenaline is pumping and we can be full of energy that feels uncomfortable and that we aren't sure what to do with. If you are safe, but are doing a lot of waiting around, or are stuck indoors with your child- bringing attention to others can be a relief.  Practicing small acts of kindness keeps your child's heart and mind busy and empowered. This may be sharing some extra snacks you have in the car with another family waiting at a community meeting point.  If you are at home, it may be gathering supplies for local shelters, sending an email filled with love to a friend or family member, or meditating or praying for those still in harm's way.